Leading article: A dirty and undeclared war

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It is not only the continuing mayhem in Iraq that is being eclipsed by the month-old war between Israel and Hizbollah in Lebanon. At any other time, the execution-style killing of 15 aid workers in Sri Lanka would surely have been front-page news. That it was not is testimony to the number and ferocity of the conflicts being played out in these early August days.

The aid workers, all Tamils, were employed by the Paris-based agency, Action Against Hunger. They were shot in the troubled region of Muthur in the north-east of the country, where they had helped survivors of the tsunami and, more recently, victims of the resurgent violence between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tiger separatists. In the four years since the government and the Tigers signed their ceasefire, this region has increasingly become a new front line.

The most immediate consequence of the killing has been the decision of the agency to suspend its operations in Sri Lanka. AAH can hardly be blamed for doing so. No organisation, however dedicated to its cause, can afford to risk the lives of its workers in this way, when the odds seem so stacked against it. Tragically, of course, it is those who need charitable assistance most who will feel the departure of the agency most keenly.

The second, equally predictable, consequence is the exchange of recriminations that has ensued between the Sri Lankan authorities and the Tamil Tigers, each of whom deny that their forces could have been responsible for the murders. While precedent points strongly to the Tigers, however, the identity of those who committed the barbaric crime probably matters less in the last analysis than what this atrocity says about the security situation in this part of Sri Lanka.

It is now abundantly clear that the fragile ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers is at an end. Even though both sides reaffirmed their respect for the ceasefire as recently as February, the violence has only escalated since. Bombings and fighting proliferated, with the loss of hundreds of lives. Then last month, in a particularly vicious move, the Tigers closed off the water supply to thousands of farmers. Heavy-handed government efforts to restore the water supply precipitated new bouts of fighting.

All this is a far cry from the promises of co-operation that followed the devastation of the tsunami. It is hard to see it as anything other than the prelude to a new civil war that would destroy Sri Lanka's tourist industry and, with it, much of the economy. The hope must be that the killing of the aid workers shocks both sides into retreating from the brink, but today that hope looks slender indeed.

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