Tigers, civilians see more attacks in north Sri Lanka
MANKULAM, Sri Lanka, May 15 (Reuters) Glancing nervously into the jungle as they secure the main road north, Tamil Tiger fighters say they believe they are already at war and that government troops are operating behind their lines.
International truce monitors say a string of attacks in Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) territory -- yet more ceasefire violations as violence on both sides becomes what the monitors term a ''low intensity war'' -- suggest that the rebels could be right. The army denies the charge.
Most analysts say it was the rebels who began the cycle of violence with a series of attacks on troops, but the Tigers blame the government.
''The government has started an unofficial war with the LTTE and we want to face them,'' said Tiger fighter Shankar, one of a group of rebels guarding the A9 highway north through the rebel de facto state. ''Our commander has advised us that if the government attacks LTTE cadres, we should retaliate immediately.'' Asked if he wanted peace or war, standing next to the rough corrugated iron camp he shares with around 10 other fighters, he said in Tamil: ''We like war''.
The Tigers have fought for two decades for a separate Tamil homeland, evolving from a small group of young men to one of the world's most feared guerrilla armies, 10,000-20,000 strong with powerful naval and Black Tiger suicide bomber wings.
United Nations agency UNICEF says some are abducted as children against the wishes of their parents, but most fighters say they are volunteers. They say they will bite into cyanide capsules dangling around their necks rather than surrender.
Since a 2002 ceasefire, Sri Lanka's two-decade civil war has been halted. But since early April more than 270 people have died as naval battles, ambushes, murders and air strikes have led to many concluding that the island is once again at war.
Shankar says he believes Sri Lankan troops from wartime Deep Penetration Units are again operating behind rebel territory, launching hit-and-run attacks on fighters and civilians living in the one-seventh of the island under Tiger control.
BEHIND REBEL LINES The Nordic-staffed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) office in the northern town of Vavuniya says it has recorded at least seven attacks in rebel areas, including several on civilians. They believe military patrols are working alongside anti-Tiger Tamil armed groups.
''We believe that the Sri Lankan army and Tamil armed groups are operating behind LTTE lines,'' said truce monitor Bernt Gulbrandesen. ''There are so many incidents it has to be an organised thing.'' The Tigers say the first attack on them in rebel territory was a claymore fragmentation mine ambush on a rebel political wing leader in January, during a spike in violence that preceded a first round of peace talks in Switzerland.
That followed a string of claymore attacks on the military that were widely blamed on the rebels.
As the number of incidents soars, many civilians say they fear army attacks. But more than that, they fear aerial bombing.
The first official government strikes on the Tigers came in April after a suicide attack on an army headquarters in Colombo. The government hit the rebel heartland near their northern headquarters of Kilinochchi last week for the first time.
The Tigers say no one was hurt, but their persistent refusal to grant truce monitors access has raised suspicions that their fledgling air force headquarters might have been hit.
In Kilinochchi town itself, where many buildings were flattened by bombs and shells during the war, life is getting back to normal.
But few civilians share fighter Shankar's enthusiasm for more conflict.
''I think war has come,'' said 67-year-old Subramaniyam Palaniamma, selling baskets in the marketplace. ''We believe the bombs will come back. All of us are living in fear.'' REUTERS AK BST0948