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Sri Lankan Peace Hopes Suffer Military, Political Setbacks

Hopes for a political solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict appear to have suffered a new setback. Media in the region report that Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse has rejected an appeal by former prime minister and opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe to accept opposition politicians into the government. Officials of the opposition right-wing UNP (United National Party) have said such a negative response by the president would scuttle their joint pledge to work on a united proposal for negotiations with ethnic Tamil rebels. VOA's Steve Herman reports from Washington on the fading hopes for peace in Sri Lanka.

While government troops on Tuesday clashed with rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers, there was also a new setback for peace on the political front in Colombo.

Three months ago, hopes to end the island's ethnic conflict blossomed after a landmark deal was reached between Sri Lanka's governing party and the main opposition party. But that agreement appears to have collapsed due to bickering on domestic political matters.

Heritage Foundation South Asia research fellow Lisa Curtis says a united negotiating front by the two Sinhalese political parties has been viewed as the final chance to broach a political settlement with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

"This is sort of our last hope at this point if we want to avoid an all-out return to civil war, more devastating consequences for the civilian population, [and] possible chaos for the economy," she said.

Regional observers believe the government in Colombo now feels emboldened to try to defeat the rebels on the battlefield.

Curtis, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency analyst, says a military push to defeat the Tamils is a "risky gambit" for Sri Lanka's military and not a strategy the international community will support.

Another veteran expert on Sri Lanka, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Karl Inderfurth, says more than two decades of armed conflict should have demonstrated to both sides they must bridge the ethnic divide through negotiation.

"I do not believe that there is a military solution to what's taking place in Sri Lanka. This has to be resolved through political means," he said. "One side or the other may think that they have the upper hand at one time or another but that is ephemeral - things will change."

Inderfurth, a professor of international affairs at the George Washington University, cautions that arm twisting with punititive threats by diplomats, however, will not force the feuding parties back to the negotiating table.

"I don't believe that any one government - whether it be the United States of America, the Indian government, the Japanese government or Norway, that has played such an important mediating, facilitating role, can force either the Sri Lankan government or the LTTE to do something that they are not committed to doing themselves," he said.

But Curtis, who also served as the U.S. State Department's senior advisor on South Asia, is more optimistic about the opportunity for diplomacy and for Washington's ability to assert influence.

"The fact that a civil war would bring a devastating humantarian situation [and] have negative reprecussions throughout South Asia, I think it would serve the U.S. well to become more involved. A little bit of U.S. diplomacy could go a long way," he said.

Recent diplomacy by others, however, has yielded no significant progress following a 2002 truce. Now even that tentative agreement appears to be tattered.

International humanitarian organizations are continuing to operate in the primarily Tamil north despite the resumption of military attacks.

There, amid the onset of infectious diseases and food shortages, the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees and its partners are trying to rebuild basic infrastructure to get those who have fled their villages to return.

The World Bank's South Asia lead economist, Shantayanan Devarajan, says such programs could achieve what diplomacy has failed to accomplish.

"People might actually feel better about going back to the areas they had fled from and this might actually help to build the peace," he said.

Meanwhile, concern is mounting that the escalation in fighting will create a new refugee crisis. Reports from the northern part of Sri Lanka say thousands of Tamil civilians are trapped in rebel-held territory while an estimated 20,000 have fled to government-controlled areas in recent weeks to escape artillery exchanges.

Sri Lanka's government has rejected rebel demands for a Tamil homeland in the north and east, prompting the LTTE to threaten to resume its guerilla war. The ethnic violence has claimed more than 67,000 lives since 1983.