Assassination Threatens to End Sri Lankan Cease-Fire

by Somini Sengupta, The New York Times

The government of Sri Lanka and its Tamil separatist foes traded accusations yesterday over the killing of the country's foreign minister, with rebels denying responsibility, government officials brushing off their denials and the country's fragile peace process falling ever deeper into crisis.

The assassination late Friday night of the official, Lakshman Kadirgamar, 73, was the latest and most high-profile political assassination to roil the waters of Sri Lanka's efforts for peace. Technically, a three-year-old cease-fire agreement continues to hold between the government and the ethnic separatist guerrillas, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But a spate of political assassinations, combined with increasingly truculent rhetoric in recent months, has led to an erosion of confidence between the sides and fear of a resumption of full-scale war. The sides have not met for peace talks in more than two years.

"This barbaric act is a huge blow to the peace process as a whole," the head of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission, Hagrup Haukland, of Norway, said in a statement yesterday.

The government declared emergency rule, authorizing law enforcement forces to conduct search operations without warrants and detain suspects for longer than otherwise permitted.

Whether or not the assassination will prompt either side to formally discard the cease-fire agreement remains to be seen. Neither may be tempted to, because neither emerged victorious after nearly two decades of civil war. Still, hopes for a return to the negotiating table took a fresh and arguably fatal blow with the assassination of Mr. Kadirgamar, the highest-ranking Tamil official in President Chandrika Kumaratunga's cabinet and an outspoken critic of the Tamil Tigers.

His killing, by snipers positioned in a building next to Mr. Kadirgamar's house in the capital, Colombo, may not immediately prompt a resumption of conflict on the battlefield, said P. Saravanamuttu, director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, by telephone from Colombo. But it is likely to bring about "a situation of heightened tension and cold war."

"The peace process was seriously in need of reviving before the assassination and the assassination has made it much more difficult," he added.

By yesterday afternoon, Sri Lankan authorities had held two people for questioning in connection with the killing. Both were taken from a building next door to Mr. Kadirgamar's house in Colombo. Grenades and grenade launchers were also recovered from the house, a military spokesman, Brig. Daya Ratnayake, said in a telephone interview. Two other people, linked to the Tamil Tigers, or L.T.T.E., as they are commonly known, had been arrested 10 days ago, the military spokesman said, as they tried to take video and still photographs of the area around the foreign minister's house.

[Sri Lanka's government said today that 12 minority Tamils had been arrested during overnight raids in connection with the slaying, The Associated Press reported. The raids took place in and around Colombo, Brigadier Ratnayake said.]

Yesterday, the president's spokesman, Harim Peiris, pointed the finger at the Tamil separatists. "Initial indications are that the L.T.T.E. is behind the assassination," he said by telephone. In an interview with a Tamil news Web site, the political chief of the Tamil Tigers, S. P. Thamilchelvan, said they had no role in the killing and blamed elements within the Sri Lankan military for trying to "sabotage" the cease-fire.

Earlier this week, the Tigers' chief negotiator, Anton Balasingam, accused President Kumaratunga's government of arming militias to attack L.T.T.E. forces in the country's north and east. The government blames a L.T.T.E. splinter group for the recent clashes. But Mr. Balasingam, in an interview with the same Web site, called it "a shadow war" and a violation of the cease-fire, which threatened to "rekindle the civil war."

The government of President Kumaratunga finds itself hamstrung from yet another side, with one of its coalition partners pulling out of the government in protest against a deal to share $3 billion in post-tsunami reconstruction funds with the Tamil Tigers. The coalition partner, a Sinhala ethnic nationalist party fiercely opposed to any agreements with the Tamil guerrillas, took the matter to the Supreme Court, which in turn issued a temporary injunction against the tsunami financing deal. Some 30,000 people died in last December's tsunami.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting for this article.


Posted August 14, 2005