Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Monitors: Violence Falls, but Peril Remains

by Peter Apps, Reuters, January 30, 2006

Interview with SLMM's Haukland before the abductions in which he warns of the dangers of a major incident.

COLOMBO - Violence has fallen dramatically in Sri Lanka since Tamil Tiger rebels and the government agreed last week to hold new talks, international truce monitors said on Monday, but rogue elements could still destroy a fragile peace.

A string of attacks on government forces in December and January pushed the island to the brink of a new civil war, but Hagrup Haukland, head of the Nordic-staffed unarmed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), said tensions were now falling.

"It's getting better -- much better," the former Norwegian soldier told Reuters in the mission's Colombo headquarters. "The situation is back at next to normal. But this is still a very crucial time." The two sides had been unable to agree a venue for the talks, but Norwegian envoy Erik Solheim -- architect of a 2002 ceasefire almost destroyed by the new violence -- brokered an agreement for them on Wednesday to meet in Switzerland in February.

The parties will only discuss implementation of the truce -- how to reduce the number of killings after 200 died in less than two months -- and not the underlying political issues. But diplomats say it is at least a step in the right direction.

So far, the signs were good, Haukland said. While tension persisted between Muslim and Tamil groups on the northeastern coast, some internally displaced refugees were returning home.

Distrust between the army and minority Tamil civilians, boosted by the suspected rebel attacks, appeared to be falling, he said.

Derailment Feared

"We have seen with our own eyes the security forces being very harsh on the local population after the attacks on them," Haukland said. "That is understandable but it is not acceptable. But it has come down in the last few days." The monitors say only two civilians have died since Solheim's visit last week -- two too many, but still a vast improvement -- but diplomats still worry that too many Tamil deaths or any new large attacks on either side could stop the peace process dead.

The first, and so far only, clash since Wednesday's agreement happened within hours, with the Tigers accusing the army of ambushing and killing a senior rebel while the military said the militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at a bunker.

Each side denied attacking the other and said the Geneva meeting was still on, but Haukland warned that there were groups who wanted to wreck the truce and plunge the island back into the two-decade-old civil war that has killed more than 64,000.

Diplomats say that "spoilers" range from a breakaway Tiger group in the east now widely seen as government-backed to rogue military elements, nationalists from the island's Sinhalese majority and front-line commanders on both sides who simply cannot believe the other seriously wants peace.

"When the parties have their talks in Geneva, they need a stable environment," Haukland said. "My fingers are crossed we will not have a major incident between now and then. Any serious incident could derail the process.

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