Lanka says no withdrawal despite Tiger threats
COLOMBO, Sept 9: Sri Lanka's government said today there was no question of withdrawing from a rebel stronghold it captured five days ago, despite threats of retaliation and renewed fighting in the north of the country.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have threatened to strike back if the army does not immediately withdraw from territory near the strategic Trincomalee harbour in the northeast of the Indian Ocean island nation.
Senior rebel leader S Puleedevan told Reuters yesterday the seizure of Sampur, the first major capture of territory by either side since a 2002 ceasefire, was ''tantamount to a declaration of war''.
The rebels' political chief, S.P. Thamilselvan, said it had brought an end to the ceasefire agreement.
But the government says it was forced to take Sampur because the rebels had been using it to shell a naval base in Trincomalee and disrupt a maritime supply route to the besieged, army-held Jaffna peninsula in the north.
''In the light of this the question of withdrawal will never arise,'' defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told Reuters.
''We have to accept this challenge from Puleedevan.'' The rebel enclave at Sampur was also threatening an important oil storage terminal, a flour mill and a cement factory, he said.
The government also accused the Tigers of attempting to ''escalate the violence'' through a continuous artillery and mortar barrage near Muhamalai on the Jaffna peninsula yesterday.
''Sri Lankan security forces retaliated the LTTE attack, with the assistance of air force fighter jets which raided identified LTTE artillery launching pads,'' the defence ministry said.
''A number of LTTE bunkers were destroyed during the retaliatory attacks.''
''REBELS DODGING TALKS''
The Voice of the Tigers radio station said four of its soldiers had been killed in yesterday's artillery battle, while the government said 12 of its troops had suffered minor injuries. Diplomats say it is difficult to see a way to rescue the peace process and warn that a ''quagmire'' may have developed with both sides apparently more interested in fighting than talking.
It is unlikely, they add, the rebels will return to the negotiating table unless they somehow regain control of Sampur.
But Rambukwella said the Tigers were using any excuse to dodge peace talks.
''We have to get to issues, discuss serious matters, how power should be shared, devolved,'' Rambukwella said. ''We are ready for that, the international community is ready for that, the LTTE is in absentia.
''We feel they are dodging talks on purpose because peace is not a word they are familiar with,'' he added.
Meanwhile, the government said it was evacuating 795 civilians by ship from the Jaffna peninsula today to take them to Trincomalee, in the largest evacuation from the government enclave since the latest fighting began.
The Tigers have refused to give the boat, which left Jaffna earlier today, a guarantee of safe passage.
The foes blame each other for trying to force a full-scale return to a war that has killed more than 65,000 people since 1983.
Hundreds of civilians, troops and Tiger fighters have been killed in the past month, and more than 200,000 people have fled to refugee camps across the island's rural northeast.