Sri Lanka Rebels Demand Government Reopen Highway, Say Peace Talks at Stake

Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels say peace talks will fail, unless the government agrees to open a key highway to the Jaffna Peninsula, which the rebels say is necessary for humanitarian reasons. Observers hope the talks will lead to a cessation of fighting between the rebels and the government, which threatens to return the nation to all-out war.

The Sri Lankan government two months ago cut off a key highway linking the predominately Tamil Jaffna Peninsula with the rest of the country. The Tamil Tigers say people living on the peninsula, in Sri Lanka's far north, are facing acute food shortages as a result.

A rebel spokesman warned Friday that, if the government does not agree during peace talks in Geneva to reopen the highway, there will be no further talks.

The two sides are to start two days of negotiations on Saturday. The goal of talks is to save a ceasefire signed in 2002, and prevent a return to all-out civil war.

Observers hope the talks will lead to a renewed commitment to the ceasefire. But given the wave of violence and the failure of previous rounds of talks to end it, few people are optimistic.

The group Human Rights Watch says the priority now is not achieving peace, but merely mitigating the impact of the fighting on Sri Lanka's civilian population.

In a statement released Thursday, the group called on both sides to designate demilitarized zones where civilians can escape the fighting. The statement also proposed the positioning of humanitarian relief in such zones, and other humanitarian measures.

"Nobody I know, who follows this closely, thinks there's any real opportunity for a breakthrough," said Brad Adams, the Human Rights Watch Asia director. "So, whether it's formal war, or unofficial fighting, they need to take care of the civilian population. And doing things like setting up demilitarized zones, and having agreements about notifying civilian populations before fighting starts, or bombing starts would make a big difference."

The Jaffna peninsula is dominated by ethnic Tamils, Sri Lanka's largest minority group. It is also home to Tamil Tiger bases, and the senior leadership is headquartered just to the south. The government sealed off the A-9 highway in August, amid an eruption of fighting that claimed an estimated 2,000 lives.

Residents of Jaffna are now dependent on the government for shipments of food and essential supplies, most of which come by sea. The rebels say that is not enough.

Sri Lanka's civil war began in 1983, when the rebels demanded independence for Jaffna, and parts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, where the Tamils are also dominant. The rebels claim that Tamils are victims of oppression by the ethnic Sinhalese majority.

Following the signing of the 2002 ceasefire, the rebels said they would settle for greater autonomy in those areas instead of independence. But the two sides never agreed on the details of those changes, or a mechanism for implementing them.