Leading article: The Sri Lankan government should show restraint

The war is won, but the peace with the Tamils is anything but secure

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After 26 long years, Sri Lanka's brutal civil war - which has claimed more than 70,000 lives - is finally coming to an end. The Tamil Tiger rebels have been bottled up in a narrow coastal strip in the north east. They are militarily exhausted and surrounded. Unsurprisingly, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is keen to bring this brutal conflict to a decisive end.

Yet such a clean conclusion looks increasingly unlikely to be achieved. The Tigers, with their backs to the Indian Ocean, are using some 50,000 Tamil civilians as human shields. On the other side, the Colombo government is under growing international pressure to avoid further civilian casualties.

Yesterday's statement from the president that the army will no longer use "heavy weapons" in the conflict zone appears to have been intended to appease the visiting United Nations humanitarian chief. With the Tigers clinging to their hostages and the government's hands tied, the situation is looking like a stalemate.

President Rajapaksa, however, seems unwilling to give up hope of a military solution. There have been reports of a government air raid on a village in the no-fire zone, even after the army released its promise to use only small arms. It is impossible to verify such reports because no news media have been allowed into the conflict zone. But there is certainly little sign of Mr Rajapaksa being prepared to call a ceasefire.

Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority is in triumphant mood at the plight of the reviled Tigers, but the Colombo government ought to look at the bigger picture. When this conflict is over the Sinhalese will need to live side by side with their Tamil neighbours. The more pain and misery inflicted on the Tamil minority now, the harder that transition will be.

The squalid conditions in the internment camps for Tamils displaced by the fighting in the north and east are reinforcing ethnic resentment and suspicion. So is the civilian Tamil body count. According to the UN, almost 6,500 civilians have been killed in the past three months of intense fighting. Thousands more are reported by aid organisations to be at risk of starvation. Some agencies argue that rebuilding shattered Tamil communities in the north could be an even bigger challenge than cleaning up after the 2004 tsunami. A bloody endgame to this conflict would certainly be a disaster. And it could even sow the seeds of a new conflict, possibly a guerrilla campaign by the scattered remnants of the Tigers.

Colombo can destroy the Tigers' capabilities, but the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that insurgencies do not need sophisticated equipment to be effective. A group which pioneered the use of the suicide bomber should have little trouble switching to a Taliban-style terror campaign.

But such a nightmare can be averted. There is no question that the Colombo government has prevailed militarily. The Tigers are a broken force. Their cause is crumbling too. Most Tamils want a degree of regional autonomy, not a separate state. It is even suggested the Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, could be persuaded to go into exile.

Military restraint and serious negotiation is in Colombo's best interests. President Rajapaksa's forces have essentially won the war. His government's actions over the coming days and weeks will determine whether Sri Lanka squanders, or seizes, the chance to establish a lasting peace.

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