Leading article: A tragedy born of stubbornness

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The Independent Online

Yesterday's ambush of a bus in northern Sri Lanka was a sickening attack, even by the standards of a civil war that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands over three decades. More than 60 civilians were killed in the blast, including many women and children. This was easily the deadliest attack on the island since the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers signed an uneasy truce over four years ago.

The Tigers have denied they were behind this attack. But the fact that most of the dead are from the majority Sinhalese community points to the rebels' involvement, as does the type of explosives used. The government is in no doubt, and a wave of air strikes began to pound rebel positions yesterday.

Sri Lanka is sliding perilously close to full-scale civil war. More than 500 have died since early April in military clashes and civilian ambushes. Tamil suicide bombers are back too, as demonstrated by the attempted assassination of the leader of the Sri Lankan army two months ago. The Norwegian-brokered peace process is going nowhere. The Tigers have pulled out of talks. There is no agreement even on the safety of cease-fire monitors.

The logic for this conflict remains elusive. A de facto Tamil state now exists in the north and east of the country. The Tigers long ago indicated they were prepared to accept autonomy, rather than full independence. And, of course, most Tamil and Sinhalese people have no desire for further conflict.

The blame must lie with the leadership of each side. The rebel leaders are using an upsurge in violence to distract attention from their internal struggle with a rogue general. Meanwhile those around President Mahinda Rajapakse are urging a short, sharp war to force the weakened Tamils to accept a deal.

But a return to civil war is in the interests of neither side. The island's economy is weak, ravaged by years of war, not to mention the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. An escalation of fighting would destroy tourism and foreign investment, two of the biggest sources of income for the government. The Tigers would also soon find themselves starved of cash. New anti-terrorism global banking regulations would come into play, blocking donations from the Tamil diaspora overseas.

The aftermath of the tsunami, which did not discriminate between Sinhalese and Tamil areas of the island, created a golden opportunity to deepen the peace process through a mutual reconstruction effort. But thanks to the stubbornness of leaders on both sides, the deal to share international aid has not been implemented. Sri Lanka now finds itself facing a man-made disaster of scarcely less devastating proportions.