Colombo: The Tamil Tigers declared a unilateral ceasefire on Sunday, but Sri Lanka dismissed it as a “joke” and said only a surrender would stop troops from finishing the last battle in Asia’s longest modern war.
The Tigers’ truce declaration came as the UN’s top humanitarian chief was in the island nation to press for the protection of tens of thousands of people trapped in the apparent final conventional battle of a war that started in 1983.
And Sri Lanka’s ruling party won a resounding victory in a provincial poll, seen as the latest referendum on President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s war effort and another step to shoring up his power before possibly calling an early national election.
No way out: Civilians in a government-held location on Friday after fleeing an area controlled by the LTTE in the ‘no fire zone’. Reuters
The Tigers have offered a ceasefire repeatedly as the military juggernaut has pushed them to the brink of defeat, but have refused international calls to free stranded civilians, who witnesses say are kept from leaving by deadly force. “In the face of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and in response to the calls made by the UN, EU, the governments of India and others, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has announced a unilateral ceasefire,” an LTTE statement said.
Sri Lanka’s defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa laughed at the truce declaration. “That is a joke. They were not fighting with us, they were running from us. There is no need of a ceasefire. They must surrender. That is it,” he said in a telephone interview.
The war success has driven President Rajapaksa’s popularity high, and helped him sideline the main opposition United National Party (UNP).
But after the end of the conventional war, Sri Lanka will face challenges healing divisions between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority and boosting an ailing economy. It is seeking a $1.9 billion IMF loan to ease a balance of payments crisis.
Colombo has long said the LTTE must either surrender or face annihilation, and says the rebels’ previous use of ceasefires to rearm proves their bad faith. The UN, the US, the European Union and others are urging a new truce.
“We are of the view that only such a ceasefire can end the humanitarian crisis and help avert the long-term impact of this crisis on the region and on the peoples of the island,” the LTTE statement said.
It made no mention of surrender, nor of releasing the people still inside the battle zone, who the rebels say are being killed in the military assaults.
The military denies targeting civilians, and says the LTTE is hiding behind them as a human shield.
Since LTTE founder-leader V. Prabhakaran commands followers to wear vials of cyanide to be taken in case of capture, surrender is viewed as highly unlikely.