Amid Tamil Nadu drama, Sri Lanka ends ‘combat operations’ (Roundup)

April 27th, 2009 - 9:22 pm ICT by IANS  

P. Chidambaram Colombo/Chennai, April 27 (IANS) Sri Lanka Monday called off months of “combat operations” that have pushed the Tamil Tigers to a corner and led to international concern over widespread civilian suffering, but made it clear that it would continue to take on the guerrillas.
The decision immediately cast a shadow on politically-divided Tamil Nadu, where Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi called off a hunger strike he began hours earlier in support of a truce. But AIADMK leader Jayalalitha, who last week called for an independent Tamil Eelam, trashed Colombo’s initiative.

Shortly after Karunanidhi began his protest on the beachfront in Chennai, Sri Lanka’s National Security Council decided to halt aerial bombings and use of heavy calibre weapons against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), now in control of a small strip of land in Mullaitivu district.

Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram interpreted Colombo’s decision as a cessation of hostilities but Sri Lanka’s defence ministry said military operations against the LTTE would continue.

Sri Lanka clarified that it had merely told its security forces to stop using “heavy guns, aerial weapons and combat aircraft” that have allegedly caused thousands deaths and injuries, creating a humanitarian crisis.

The defence ministry said the military would start rescuing the remaining 15-20,000 civilians from the LTTE zone where Tamil Tiger leaders, including its founder leader Velupillai Prabhakaran are said to be hiding.

The decision followed mounting appeals for a ceasefire from Western capitals and India’s silent diplomacy aimed at easing tensions in Tamil Nadu amid a bitterly fought parliamentary elections. For the first time, the LTTE campaign has become a major campaign issue in Tamil Nadu.

The Sri Lankan move came amid the visit of UN humanitarian chief John Holmes, who is in Colombo to assess the needs of the thousands of Tamil civilians who have fled the rebel-held area or are still trapped in the war zone. And it came a day after the LTTE announced a ceasefire, which was promptly rejected by the government as a “joke”.

As fresh fighting erupted Monday in Mullaitivu district, where the LTTE now holds less than 10 sq km area, Karunanidhi — who had earlier pressed New Delhi to sever diplomatic ties with Colombo — suddenly started the hunger strike.

“I have decided to add my life to the increasing numbers of lives lost due to the Sinhalese regime’s continuing cruel acts against the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka,” Karunanidhi said. Thousands gathered at the site to support him while sporadic violence erupted in Tamil Nadu.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi telephoned the DMK chief and assued him that New Delhi was doing its best to persuade Colombo to halt its military offensive.

But an unmoved Jayalalitha reiterated her demand for an independent Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. She also denounced Congress leader Kapil Sibal for branding her call “anti-national”.

“I am not calling for any separate nation to be carved out of Indian territory. I am a patriot to the core and I do not need Sibal to teach me lessons in patriotism. A separate Tamil Eelam should be carved out in Sri Lanka,” Jayalalitha said in Chennai.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown Monday meanwhile dispatched his International Development Minister Mike Foster to Sri Lanka “to conduct a humanitarian assessment” of the situation.

According to latest statistics, over 3,000 people fled the war zone and entered the government-controlled areas Sunday, taking the total number of civilian escapees to 111,512 in one week.

The Unicef said 50 tonnes of airlifted emergency relief supplies landed in Colombo Monday, to be distributed to the Tamil civilians now in makeshift camps in Sri Lanka’s north.

Many thousands are in hospital after suffering grievous wounds in artillery shelling, aerial attacks and landmine explosions, blamed both on the military and the LTTE.

“Sri Lanka is facing a humanitarian crisis that requires a rapid response. We estimate that there are approximately a quarter of a million people who need help and they need it quickly,” Unicef’s Philippe Duamelle said.

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