Delhi watching situation in Sri Lanka

NEW DELHI, MAY 8. India is not surprised by the Sri Lankan Government's rejection of the temporary and conditional offer for a ceasefire by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

While there has been no formal reaction from the spokesman of the Foreign Office to the latest developments in Sri Lanka, the Government is carefully assessing the political and military dynamics in the island nation. There is some concern here that today's political manoeuvring around the idea of a ceasefire could just be the prelude for a military offensive by the LTTE against Jaffna.

The Government is fully aware that any escalation of the conflict now will begin to severely strain the policy framework adopted by New Delhi in dealing with the Sri Lankan crisis.

The threat of an expanded conflict, with possibly high casualties, comes in the wake of India's own readiness made public by the External Affairs Minister, Mr. Jaswant Singh, to facilitate peace talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government.

In proposing an immediate ceasefire, the LTTE seemed to be wrapping itself in ``reasonableness''. But the devil, as always, is in the detail. The conditions attached by the LTTE for the ceasefire, and the threat to intensify the conflict, were obviously far too humiliating for the Government of Sri Lanka to accept. Any Government in Colombo would have found it hard to accept the offer of ``safe passage'' to its troops within its own territory under the threat of their decimation.

Today's developments do not mean that the talk of a ceasefire has come to an end. Highly-placed sources here say that the idea of a ceasefire has been floating around for a while in the international community.

The variants of the proposal for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Sri Lanka appear to have figured in the recent consultations between New Delhi and the Governments in Washington, London and Paris. Diplomatic sources here say that the Sri Lankan Government might be prepared to consider a ceasefire that is not conditioned on the withdrawal of its troops from the Jaffna peninsula.

An ``in-situ'' ceasefire, implying that both sides would stop fighting while holding on to their current positions, many hope, could provide a basis for beginning peace talks between Colombo and the LTTE.

But the LTTE, which may be expecting major military gains, is unlikely to accept the proposal for an ``in-situ'' ceasefire. That brings the focus back on to the question of how the military situation in the Jaffna peninsula will unfold in the next few days. There will also be some discussion in the next few days on what India and other interested nations could do to prevent the imminent escalation of the conflict in Sri Lanka.