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Peace no longer on Sri Lanka agenda?

From CNN's Kasra Naji

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (CNN) -- A heavy air of pessimism and despondency has descended in Sri Lanka amid ominous signs the country may be slipping back into war after two-and-a-half years of relative peace.

The Norwegian-brokered peace process that had ushered in a period of relative peace is in tatters.

Street checkpoints that had largely disappeared soon after the February 2002 cease-fire are once again manned and active.

Street barriers that had been discarded are slowly being brought back.

Mobile police teams have again taken to setting up surprise checkpoints around the city.

And hardline allies of President Chandrika Kumaratunga are putting up posters denouncing the rebels for allegedly deploying suicide bombers while talking peace.

A suicide bombing in a police station in the capital last week that killed the bomber along with four officers led many people to ask whether the war had resumed.

The incident served as a reminder just how far Sri Lanka has come in the past two-and-a-half years, and just how easily it can return to the terrible days of death and destruction.

More than 65,000 have been killed in the twenty years of fighting between government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels who are fighting for a separate homeland.

The rebels denied involvement in last week's suicide bombing, but few here believed them.

It had all the hallmarks of the Tiger suicide squad -- known as Black Tigers -- and it came soon after a spate of killings in the east where signs are that the Sri Lankan army, or some agencies within it, are backing a renegade leader known as Colonel Karuna in his fight against the main body of the rebels.

The message of the suicide bomber was clear -- stop this proxy war against us.

But there is little sign that message has been taken on board in Colombo.

Defense Secretary Cyril Herath denied the army was backing Karuna.

"Karuna's people can act on their own -- they don't need help," he told Reuters.

State-owned radio recently carried a long interview with Colonel Karuna in which he accused Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabakharan of planning for war while talking peace.

The interview drew sharp reactions from the rebels of the Liberations Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE).

"The truth is out today beyond any doubt that the Sri Lankan state is providing him (Karuna) state facilities to wage a proxy war of black propaganda against the LTTE and to carry out terrorist attacks with the assistance of Sri Lankan military intelligence to derail the ceasefire," said the leader of the rebels in eastern Sri Lanka, E. Kausalyan.

He said the rebels were ready to go back to the battlefields.

And the head of the political wing of the Tigers, S.P. Tamilchelvan, issued a warning.

"Patience has a limit. We are being pushed to a situation when we would have to take the final decision."

The rebels have been fighting back.

Last week they executed two young men they accused of being collaborators. And a monk who had given shelter to anti-LTTE forces has died after a grenade attack on his temple.

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Kumaratunga says she is committed to the peace process.

Officially, President Chandrika Kumaratunga remains committed to the peace process.

She has said the Karuna issue is an internal problem of the rebels and the government will not get involved.

Soon after last week's suicide bombing in Colombo, she said one or two incidents will not be allowed to derail the peace process.

Kumartugna has taken full control of the peace process since April when the general elections threw up a surprise result.

The electorates rejected then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe -- the architect of what was until then a largely successful peace process.

During the election campaign Kumaratunga maintained that Wickremesinghe had given too many concessions to the rebels.

Commentators here interpreted the results of the elections as an indication that while Sinhalese people wanted peace, they were not prepared to pay the price for it.

The peace talks are on hold as the two sides fail to agree on an agenda. The Norwegian facilitators don't seem to be able to bridge the gap.

The "Karuna factor" is looming large.

The emergence of Colonel Karuna appears to have tempted some elements in the Sri Lankan establishment that a chance of a lifetime has arrived.

They believe wresting the control of the east from the Tigers would seriously undermine the strength of the rebels in the north.

After twenty years of a bloody and inconclusive war, the hard-line Sinhalese nationalists now believe there may be a military solution to Sri Lanka's woes.

And newspapers here seem to be quietly going along with them. Reading the newspapers it is clear pushing for peace is no longer on the agenda.


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