Cycle of violence brings Sri Lanka to edge of war

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A police Jeep moves slowly through the streets, an announcement crackling from the loudspeakers on its roof: the curfew begins in two hours. But the streets are already deserted except for the stray dogs and the soldiers toting assault rifles who stand on every corner. Some of the buildings are burnt out, smoke-blackened shells. A couple of weeks ago, six people went missing in the middle of riots. When they found the bodies they were burnt. The word in Trincomalee is that they were burnt alive. This is a very different Sri Lanka from the one the tourists see, but it lies a few hours drive away. Western tourists still arrive by the planeload every day, but on the other side of the island, away from the palm-fringed beaches and the nightclubs, an old nightmare is returning to Sri Lanka.

There were air strikes outside Trincomalee two days ago, and reports of as many as 40,000 people fleeing their homes to escape. The Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels are teetering on the edge of a return to war.

Norwegian peace brokers have said the Tigers had finally agreed to attend peace talks in Geneva. The talks will be watched closely by many in Trincomalee, desperately hoping they will bring a last-minute reprieve from a return to civil war. Up to 64,000 people are believed to have died in the two-decade war between the government and the Tigers, before a ceasefire in 2002. And as that ceasefire has all but disintegrated over the past few months, Trincomalee has become the main battleground.

"People are afraid to go out even in the daytime, never mind at night," says Aziz Bashir, a local teacher. "The schools are closed because everyone is too scared to let their children come. Even the government officials don't turn up to work. The government is not functioning.

"If people get sick during the night, they are too frightened to go to hospital. The shops open for a couple of hours in the morning. After noon, everything is closed."

Trincomalee is a city with a spectacular setting, on a wide inlet from the sea amid a horseshoe of palm-clad hills. But its streets have become nervous, frightened places that empty quickly as evening approaches. On 1 April, a bomb went off in the middle of the market here. Seven people were killed, one soldier and six civilians, one of them a child. The bomb was blamed on the Tigers, although they denied responsibility. An angry mob began to take its own revenge. People were hacked to death, and shops were set on fire. At least 15 people were killed. Six others disappeared trying to flee the area of the killings. They were the ones found burnt. Most of the dead from the revenge killings were ethnic Tamils. Trincomalee is one of the most ethnically mixed cities in Sri Lanka: one-third Tamil. But the Tigers have claimed Trincomalee as the capital of Tamil Eelam, the homeland they want to create for Sri Lanka's Tamils.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting for autonomy for Sri Lanka's Tamils, who they say suffer discrimination by the Sinhalese majority. The ceasefire in 2002 left Trincomalee in the hands of the government, but pockets of land nearby under Tiger control. These pockets were bombarded by the Sri Lankan military this week, after the attempted assassination of its army chief by a female suicide bomber in Colombo. The government blamed the Tigers for that attack; the Tigers denied it. "I don't support this violence," says Nimal da Silva, a local football coach and one of Trincomalee's Sinhalese. "My opinion is the best way is to shake hands and make peace.

"I have suffered repression at the hands of the Tamil community. I was the only Sinhalese football coach, but they threw me out because they wanted to make it all Tamil. All my relatives have fled to Colombo, but I refuse to go. If we go, we will lose everything here."

Nayagam Sittampalam, a local scout leader and a Tamil, said: "The bombing here on the 12th was pure performance, it was totally against the Tamil community. The Sinhalese want an excuse to force us out of Trincomalee, so they are creating this problem." Mr Bashir, the Muslim teacher, adds: "We are neutral here, but we are facing problems from both communities. The police do nothing to stop abuses committed by Sinhalese; they turn a blind eye." In the atmosphere of distrust and accusation that pervades Trincomalee, everybody accuses everybody else of forcing a return to war. Many analysts accuse the Tigers of trying to restart the war in a bid for more territory than the tiny fiefdoms they now control, which the Tigers, naturally, deny. As for why Trincomalee has become such a battleground, there is one other reason, besides its mixed population. The picturesque sea inlet is the finest sheltered naval harbour in South Asia, just a short journey from the coast of India, the emerging economic power of the region. Trincomalee is one big reason India, and the US, are so keen to prevent a return to war on Sri Lanka.