, COLOMBO, Apr 14 – Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels said they were ready to negotiate a ceasefire with government forces and restart peace talks to halt decades of ethnic bloodshed.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), cornered in a narrow strip of jungle in the northeast and vastly outnumbered, said they wanted a long-term truce supervised by the international community.
"Such a ceasefire should also contain a base for political negotiations," the rebels said in a statement.
But Sri Lanka’s government immediately rejected the call, saying the guerrillas had to first lay down their arms before any negotiations could be held.
"They can’t talk about a political settlement to buy time to regroup," said government spokesman Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena.
The Tigers have suffered months of battlefield setbacks at the hands of government troops, and their 37-year armed campaign for an independent Tamil homeland appears close to an end.
The Sri Lankan government has ordered a temporary halt in fighting this week while the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities celebrate their shared New Year.
The government said it hoped that non-combatants would be able to leave a narrow strip of coastal jungle where they are allegedly held hostage by the Tigers.
But the LTTE said this was only a gesture designed to deflect mounting international concern over the fate of Tamil civilians trapped in the last patch of territory in the northeast still in rebel hands.
"We consider this ceasefire announcement of the Sri Lankan government as a two-day holiday opportunity availed to its servicemen," the Tigers said.
"The LTTE unequivocally condemns this political swagger aimed at deceiving the world as well as the Tamil people."
The Tiger statement said an internationally backed ceasefire was needed to end the suffering of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the conflict zone.
The United Nations and several countries have welcomed the government’s brief ceasefire as a first step towards ending the bloodshed in Sri Lanka, and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he hoped for an extension.
"It would be a tragedy if there is a return to intense fighting and civilian deaths after 48 hours," a foreign office spokesman said in London.
Miliband, while condemning the LTTE’s treatment of civilians, requested Sri Lanka to consider a longer ceasefire, but Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama rejected such calls.
Bogollagama said in a statement that he "emphasised that a longer pause was not possible because the LTTE has so far failed to demonstrate any genuine goodwill on its part in allowing the civilians to have free movement."
On Monday, the Sri Lankan government stripped Norway of its role as broker of the island’s moribund peace process, bringing an end to a decade-long diplomatic effort.
Norway’s removal cuts off an important conduit for communications with the rebels — either from Colombo, the United Nations or other countries promoting the peace process.
Sri Lanka had formally invited the Scandinavian nation to act as peace broker in January 2000, and Oslo managed to secure a ceasefire which came into force in February 2002.
The Sri Lankan government pulled out of the truce in January last year, accusing the Tamil Tigers of frequent ceasefire violations and saying they had been using the break in fighting to re-arm.
For their part, the Tamil Tigers have accused the island’s Sinhalese majority of not being interested in a peace settlement.