Peace broker Norway expressed hope that Sri Lanka will retreat from the brink of full-scale war even as 18 more people were killed in escalated air strikes aimed at avenging rebel attacks and thousands of Tamil villagers were fleeing for their lives.
Top peace envoy Erik Solheim said Oslo was trying to salvage the peace process aimed at ending three decades of ethnic bloodshed that has claimed over 60,000 lives and save a Norwegian-arranged truce from total collapse.
“We are working with the parties on an hour-to-hour basis to do whatever possible to bring them back to the negotiating table in Geneva as soon as possible and to put a stop to this violence,” he said on Wednesday.
His remarks came as the Sri Lankan government continued to retaliate using coordinated air, sea and land attacks against suspected Tamil Tiger targets to avenge any strikes against security forces.
Solheim said, however, that he did not believe the latest violence signified the end of a ceasefire in place since February 2002.
“Definitely not. Both parties have committed to us that they are still committed to the ceasefire. They have done it publicly and they have done it in all informal conversations with us. So definitely they’re committed to the ceasefire,” he said.
He stressed that Colombo’s strikes should not be interpreted as a sign of the resumption of the civil war.
But Sri Lanka’s tiny stock market nose dived on the news of air strikes and fears that war had resumed, brokers said as the benchmark all share price index shed 4.13 percent to close at 2,144.20.
Escalating violence left at least 18 civilians dead and 15,000 Tamil villagers fleeing for their lives, reports from both sides said.
Three people died and 13 were wounded when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fired mortar bombs against a naval detachment in the Muttur area of Trincomalee district, defence ministry spokesman Prasad Samarasinghe said.
He denied earlier military reports that the civilians had been killed when an Israeli-built Kfir jet accidentally dropped a bomb on Muttur jetty while attacking suspected Tamil Tiger positions in the northeast.
The pro-rebel Tamilnet website reported 12 other civilians died when government warplanes struck the rebel-held Sampur area late Tuesday in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed 10 and wounded 30, including the army chief.
Police said three Tamil civilians were hacked to death in the Trincomalee district Wednesday.
The military launched the aerial bombardments after a woman pretending to be pregnant blew herself up at army headquarters in the capital, about 260 kilometers (160 miles) from Trincomalee.
“If the LTTE continues attacking, there will be coordinated retaliation in the form of defence,” Plan Implementation Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said. “This will continue as long as the LTTE targets the security forces.”
The government confirmed, however, that it was still commited to a negotiated settlement to the long-running Tamil separatist conflict.
“The ceasefire agreement is still on,” Media Minister Anura Yapa said.
But on the ground, violence escalated.
Washington led international condemnation of the spectacular bomb attack blamed on a “Black Tiger” female suicide bomber.
“It’s regrettable that the Tamil Tigers have decided to restart the war instead of restarting the peace process,” US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher said.
LTTE Trincomalee district leader S. Elilan late Tuesday asked the Swedish-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission to “clarify” whether the military had launched a “full-scale war violating the ceasefire agreement”.
At least 80 people have died in bombings in the past two weeks while Tamil rebels say 70 civilians have been killed by pro-government militia or security forces, a charge denied by the military.
The Tigers last week indefinitely pulled out of planned peace talks in Switzerland, accusing the government of attacks on Tamil civilians and complaining about transport arrangements.