U.S., U.N. Urge Sri Lanka To End Fighting, Restart Negotiations

By Lea Terhune
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – The recent dramatic upsurge of fighting between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lankan government forces prompted U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Steven Mann to make an unexpected visit to the island nation.

“[T]he United States is deeply concerned about the fighting” and “calls for the immediate cessation of hostilities,” he told reporters in Colombo August 18, after “a very detailed two hour meeting” with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“The current situation is a threatening one and we believe that the continuation of the fighting will only make the prospects for peace worse and will benefit neither side,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan planes bombed the LTTE front lines, where fierce ground fighting has continued for several weeks. It is the first major outbreak of violence since a cease-fire was declared in 2002. The Jaffna Peninsula in the northeast of Sri Lanka is cut off, inhibiting humanitarian aid.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has asked both sides to allow humanitarian aid workers to deliver supplies, saying food, fuel and water supplies are “alarmingly low.”  Air strikes and shelling by artillery have driven thousands of people from their homes.

"We and our partners are now seriously concerned about the welfare of civilians in areas inaccessible to humanitarian agencies because of strictly enforced travel restrictions, as fighting continues in the north and east of Sri Lanka," UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis said in Geneva.

Mann said, “[W]e call on all sides to give full support to non-governmental organizations operating in the affected regions and to respect the dedicated work they are doing in alleviating the suffering.”

The recent eruption of violence put a halt to the struggling Sri Lankan peace process. Seventeen workers from a French charity were attacked and killed in the Muttur area after fighting broke out there in July. Retaliatory air strikes by the Sri Lankan government killed a number of children in an orphanage in Mullaitivu District.

On August 12, a senior Tamil official in the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process was assassinated in Colombo. Two days later, a bomb exploded near the Pakistan high commissioner’s passing motorcade. The diplomat survived but seven others were killed. Prior to the cease-fire, suicide bombings were a tool commonly employed by the LTTE for political assassinations.

For two decades, the LTTE have used assassinations and insurgent activity to fight for a separate Tamil state, a war sparked by ethnic tensions between the native Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamil minority.  More than 60,000 people are believed to have died in the conflict.

An agreement and cease-fire between the government and the LTTE in 2002 opened a door to a peaceful solution. But Norwegian-negotiated peace talks have gained little ground, with neither side yielding to the demands of the other.

Urging a return to the peace process for “an undivided Sri Lanka,” Mann said both sides must be willing to make political compromises. He asked that the LTTE “ cease all acts of violence immediately and return to negotiations.” He said, “The government of Sri Lanka must work seriously to address legitimate Tamil grievances and ensure that the conduct of its security forces is impeccable, even in combat.”

He stressed “the strong desire of the United States to promote a peaceful solution,” a solution that “must include democratic rights and rule of law for all people of Sri Lanka.”