Bangalore: Sri Lanka will slide into civil war unless countries such as the US and neighbouring India take over from Norway as peace mediators, said Rohan Gunaratna, head of a Singapore-based research centre.

“Norway has outlived its usefulness as a mediator and facilitator," said Gunaratna of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. “It requires more powerful countries such as the European Union or the US or India to play a significant role in the conflict."

Sticky wicket: Sri Lankan forces have increased attacks against the Tamil Tigers in the North since capturing Eastern Province. Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake had said there will be more attacks.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) remain in control of areas of the north after losing the eastern region to the army in July. “Given the history of the conflict and the terrain, it is very difficult to wipe out LTTE," said M. Mayilvaganan, associate fellow researching Sri Lanka at the New Delhi-based Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses.

The conflict that began in 1983 has left more than 70,000 people dead, according to the defence ministry. Fighting worsened after two attempts at peace talks in Geneva failed last year and a ceasefire brokered by Norway in 2002 collapsed.

“There will be a full-fledged war," Mayilvaganan said over telephone. “It is a source of worry as the country will face a major economic and political crisis."

LTTE says any peace settlement must be based on creating a separate homeland for Tamils. The government has rejected a settlement that divides the country and is offering to devolve power to provinces.

Sri Lankan forces have increased attacks against the Tamil Tigers in the North since capturing Eastern Province. S.P. Thamilchelvan, the head of LTTE’s political wing, was killed on 2 November in an air raid. LTTE’s last weapons-smuggling vessel was destroyed a month ago and the commander of the so-called Sea Tigers was killed on 27 September.

LTTE said it will increase its efforts to establish a separate homeland in response to Thamilchelvan’s death.

The military plans more strikes on Tamil Tiger leaders, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake said three days ago.

“LTTE is on the defensive," said Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council, a Sri Lankan non-governmental peace advocacy organization. “They have been fighting a defensive war for the last several months. This suggests there has been a weakening."

The government’s air supremacy and its victory in Eastern Province have given it the “moral strength" to push ahead with the military offensive in the north, Mayilvaganan said.

An all party representative committee is drawing up a plan to devolve power and a final draft, which will protect the rights of minorities, will be ready soon, foreign secretary Palitha Kohona said in an interview last month. LTTE’s demand for a separate homeland in the north and east doesn’t reflect where the majority of the Tamils now live in the country, he said.

“The Sri Lanka government has been pursuing a strategy of both talking and fighting LTTE," Gunaratna said.

“The ultimate solution will have to be a political settlement where the Tamil parties, who have joined the mainstream together with LTTE, will have to share power in the north and the east."

A political solution that solves the standoff is unlikely, Perera said. “It will not be possible in a way the Tamil people want," he said. “It will be an imposed political solution and not based on a negotiated settlement. There is no end for the conflict in sight at this point of time."

Sri Lanka plans to boost defence spending and public security by 20% to Rs16,640 crore (Sri Lankan) in 2008, according to the government. The targeted increase means the military will eat up a record 10% of the budget.

The rebels, designated as a terrorist organization by the US, the EU and India, have an estimated 12,000 fighters. They also have an air wing that attacked oil and gas plants near the capital, Colombo, earlier this year. The military says the unit consists of five propeller-driven aircraft.

“This government appears willing to tolerate high costs in terms of military expenditure," Perera said.

“High costs can undermine the stability of the government. People will turn against the government once the costs start hurting the economy," Perera added.

Sri Lanka has “continued this war for more than 20 years and I believe it can continue for another 20 years", Gunaratna said.

Tamils made up 11.9% of Sri Lanka’s population, according to the 2001 census, the government’s census and statistics department said.