COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tiger rebels traded blame on Tuesday over combat during a two-day holiday fighting pause, which the separatist rebels said fell short of the full ceasefire they are demanding.
With more than 50,000 soldiers surrounding a 17-square km (7 sq mile) no-fire zone where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are holding tens of thousands of civilians, President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Sunday ordered troops into a defensive stance for the next two days.
Those days coincide with New Year celebrations by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Tamil populations, and Rajapaksa urged the Tigers to surrender and free the people they are keeping as human shields in the face of an imminent conventional defeat.
The LTTE Peace Secretariat, in an e-mailed statement, said Rajapaksa’s call was “merely an act of hoodwinking”.
“We consider this ceasefire announcement of (the) Sri Lanka government as a two-day holiday opportunity availed to its servicemen,” it said. “The Sinhala Forces are continuing to target the civilian population with their bombs and guns.”
The Defence Ministry said soldiers had “strictly observed the humanitarian pause” while the Tigers on Monday had fired machineguns throughout the day, and occasionally artillery. One soldier was killed by sniper fire, it said.
The United Nations and rights groups have accused the government of shelling civilian areas. The government says this is Tiger propaganda designed to create international pressure for a truce.
Thousands of Tamils in the diaspora have protested en masse for a ceasefire in cities around the world, but that has done little except infuriate Colombo -- especially after protesters in Oslo broke into the Sri Lankan embassy and trashed it.
Sri Lanka then protested to Norway and said it should no longer serve as a mediator in the peace process. Norway brokered a 2002 truce that fell apart in 2006, but has remained the international community’s main link to the rebels.
The Tigers repeated that they would comply with an immediate ceasefire for political discussions with no preconditions.
“We wish to point out that a ceasefire under the auspices of the international community alone will be effective and productive,” the statement said.
However, diplomats trying to broker a deal to get the civilians out say the Tigers have refused to let people go. The United Nations says they are shooting those trying to flee, and forcing others to fight or do battlefield labour.
The LTTE denies that and says people are staying by choice, despite the fact more than 65,000 fled Tiger areas this year.
The government remains steadfast that the Tigers must surrender or face annihilation. It says past truces during which the Tigers rearmed are proof of the LTTE’s disingenuousness.
Under Rajapaksa, the military has in less than three years seized more than 15,000 square km of territory from the LTTE and put them at the edge of defeat for the first time since Asia’s longest-running war started in 1983.