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Gulf widens between Sri Lankan government and rebel Tamils

Sri Lanka's government and the country's ethnic Tamil minority appear to be moving inexorably toward full-fledged civil war. Hopes for a negotiated settlement to the strife have dimmed as Indian efforts to promote peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil militants have reached a stalemate.

In Madras, the capital of India's Tamil Nadu State, Sri Lankan Tamil leaders said recently that the only options open were for India to exert stronger political and economic pressure on the Sri Lankan government and to provide support to the Tamil guerrillas. Tamil Nadu serves as an unofficial sanctuary and operations base for these guerrilla groups and leaders.

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``We hope that the Indian government can help provide the means for the Tamil groups to have military superiority in the northern areas,'' says Anton Balasingham, spokesman for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the largest rebel group, which has about 5,000 armed members.

Mr. Balasingham believes India would never intervene directly by sending troops to Sri Lanka, but ``we hope they could supply arms and equipment or give us the means to obtain them.''

Sri Lanka's minority Hindu Tamils, comprise about 18 percent of the island's population of 15 million. While moderate Tamils seek greater autonomy in the north and east, militant Tamil organizations -- with an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 armed men -- are fighting for an independent state or ``eelam.'' They oppose the domination of the Buddhist Sinhalese, the ethnic majority that controls the government and the Army.

Fighting escalated after July 1983, when communal riots broke out. About 2,000 Tamils were killed, and millions of dollars' worth of property was lost. The conflict has since evolved into an unending cycle of attrition, with Tamils claiming about 5,000 Tamil deaths in the last five years.

The strife directly concerns India, which has a 50-million strong Tamil population, most of which is in Tamil Nadu. Although the Indian government officially denies their existence, the Tamil rebels are known to have training camps in several parts of Tamil Nadu. The largest camp is believed to be that of Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization.

Mediation efforts initiated by India led to limited success in bringing about peace talks held in mid-1985. But subsequent cease-fire agreements have collapsed amid continuing violence.

The issue over which there is a deadlock is the Tamil demand that the island's northern province, currently under effective Tamil control, be linked with the eastern province that they claim as a predominantly Tamil area. Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene has rejected the demand, saying it amounts to division of the island and does not account for the sizable Sinhalese and Muslim populations in the east.

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Madras-based Appapillai Amirthanlingam, secretary-general of the Tamil United Liberation Front says his group's earlier suggestion of a ``redemarcation of boundaries'' in the eastern province could have been pursued, but this was ``unacceptable to the government.''

``What the government wanted to do is to settle Sinhalese in areas where Tamils have a majority,'' he adds. ``We have compromised enough from our initial demand of a separate state. We cannot compromise anything more.''

From interviews, it appears that the militants are unlikely to go for any political settlement at this stage. ``There is virtually no one in the Sri Lankan government today we would be willing to negotiate with,'' says Mr. Amirthanlingam.

Reports from Sri Lanka in recent months indicate that the government aims to eradicate the Tamil rebels before working out any political solution. Late last year, President Jayewardene told the influential weekly, India Today, that ``the Tamil problem is more a military problem [that] has to be tackled militarily.''

The Sri Lankan Army has beefed up its military capabilities through recent purchases of heavy weaponry and sophisticated equipment. In the Tamil-controlled northern Jaffna district, the government has reportedly taken to daily bombing attacks, inflicting heavy civilian casualties.

In a dramatic reaction, India's external affairs minister told the Indian Parliament that incidents of violence in Sri Lanka had ``elements of genocide.'' Relations between the two countries ebbed to a new low with India's condemnation of Sri Lanka last month at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his advisers reportedly hold the view that no official emissary will be sent to Colombo until the government there first works out fresh formulas for discussions.

There have been unconfirmed reports in the last few weeks that Jayewardene has proposed the establishment of a national government including Tamil ministers and other opposition parties.

Meanwhile, Tamil guerrillas are believed to be preparing for another offensive in northern Sri Lanka. According to sources, the flow of funds and arms for the guerrillas have increased since January. The rebels have grown in numbers mostly by recruiting young teenagers from Tamil families. But at the same time, the militants are divided, primarily because of individual leaders' political ambitions, observers say.

There are mounting concerns of indiscipline among the guerrilla ranks. Drug trafficking is evidently a fairly common practice for raising money.

Balasingham says the only effective way to counter Sri Lanka's military campaign is for the Indian government to provide covert support. ``The only way is to fight and fight with India's help.''

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