II. Background

2002 ceasefire agreement

Under the auspices of the Norwegian government, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government signed a Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002. Under the CFA, both sides agreed not to engage in any offensive military operation on the ground, air, or sea. They also committed to respect international law and abstain from hostile acts against the civilian population, including torture, intimidation, abduction, extortion, and harassment. The Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM), led by Norway and staffed by military and civilian personnel from Nordic countries, was established to monitor compliance with the CFA.14

The parties engaged in six rounds of talks over a six-month period from September 2002. On the agenda were issues relating to federalism and internal self-government for the north and east. These efforts were widely endorsed by concerned governments and were backed by a large, but conditional, aid commitment from other countries. The CFA brought a respite from hostilities, but not an end to serious abuses. From February 1, 2002, through December 31, 2006, the SLMM reported over 4,000 violations of the CFA, many of which involved targeted killings and other violence and intimidation against civilians, and the vast majority being committed by the LTTE.15 Members or suspected members of anti-LTTE Tamil political parties, which were required to give up their arms under the CFA, were particularly subject to attack.

Instability in Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics was exacerbated by a revolt within the LTTE in early March 2004. Led by its chief military commander in the east, V. Muralitharan, known by his nom de guerre Colonel Karuna, the revolt led to a fierce confrontation between the breakaway group and the Vanni-based LTTE command. The reasons for the split are unclear, but Karuna accused the leadership of discriminating against Tamils in the east—his traditional stronghold. The internal LTTE conflict resulted in a large death toll among both groups, the disruption of civilian life in the main venues of the rebellion in the eastern lowlands, and innumerable violations of the CFA, placing new pressures on the faltering ceasefire agreement. On April 12, 2004, an LTTE attack quickly routed Karuna’s forces. Karuna disbanded some of his forces, including most if not all of the many former LTTE child soldiers under his command. He went into hiding, but the split profoundly altered the political and military situation in the east. Since then, remaining elements of the Karuna group have frequently ambushed and attacked the LTTE and those affiliated with it, while the LTTE has sought to regain control of the east through a violent crackdown, not just on Karuna supporters, but on any dissent within the Tamil community.

The Karuna split offered the government a new opportunity to confront the LTTE. As military hostilities resumed in 2006, the Karuna group began cooperating with government forces in the east and helped with intelligence operations against the LTTE.

Under the CFA, the LTTE was allowed to open political offices in government-controlled areas and to travel freely. These offices gave the LTTE’s intelligence wing a free rein to increase its strength by targeting underage recruits, extorting money from business, and eliminating members of other Tamil groups.

Other killings since the CFA, such as the assassination of a pro-LTTE parliamentarian during a Christmas mass in 2005, have been attributed to the Karuna group, to Tamil political parties, or to Sri Lankan security forces. For a period in mid-2005, the rate of political killings reached nearly one a day.16

In November 2005 Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected the fifth president of Sri Lanka. Unlike his predecessor, he was more doubtful of the ceasefire’s benefits, as was the Sinhalese-nationalist constituency he catered to in the south.

Return to hostilities

The resumption of major military operations in April 2006 started a new phase of the conflict. Government forces, which had shelled the Sampur area in the eastern district of Trincomalee after a suicide bomb assassination attempt on Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka in Colombo on April 25, bombed the area around Mavil Aru in the east on July 26, after the LTTE turned off water from a sluice gate. The LTTE responded with a counterattack on the government-controlled, mostly Muslim town of Mutur. On August 11, 2006, the LTTE launched an attack on the Jaffna peninsula leading to a closure of the A9 highway, the main north-south arterial road. LTTE artillery attacked Palaly airbase causing a suspension of flights to Jaffna. The closure of the A9 and air flights, combined with LTTE threats to attack shipping to Jaffna, led to a severe worsening of the humanitarian situation on the peninsula. Only the eventual resumption of food and essential supplies by ship spared the 600,000 Jaffna residents further hardship.

A government offensive to take over the Sampur area led to waves of displacement from April 2006. The number of displaced from Sampur increased as fighting intensified in August. Many sought shelter in the LTTE-controlled area of Vaharai, on the coastal road between Trincomalee and Batticaloa, but later fled that area when the government defeated LTTE forces there in January 2007. Government troops succeeded in cutting off the LTTE supply route to the strategic port of Trincomalee and thereby struck a major blow to the rebels’ hold over the east, which was already considerably weakened following the Karuna split in 2004. The LTTE tried but failed to block the departure of civilians from LTTE areas.

During the fighting, LTTE forces fired heavy weapons from populated areas, including near displaced persons camps, placing civilians at unnecessary risk. The army often responded with or initiated indiscriminate shelling. On November 8, 2006, this dynamic resulted in the deaths of more than 40 displaced civilians and injuries to nearly 100 others who had sought refuge outside a school. Fearful of continued shelling, more than 20,000 people fled LTTE-territory by walking for days through jungle or risking their lives on overcrowded boats. Several drowned at sea. Many families continue to live in uncertain circumstances in areas under the influence of the Karuna group. In February 2007 the government began using threats and intimidation to force civilians who fled fighting in the east to return home. Government and military officials threatened to cut aid and withdraw security for displaced persons who refused to return, causing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to seek assurances from the government (see Chapter III, “Internal Displacement”).

Since March 2007 a string of firefights and mortar duels accompanied by aerial bombing by the Sri Lankan military in the districts of Mannar and Vavuniya in the north has been inflicting heavy casualties on both sides. The onslaught on the north marks a decisive shift in the theater of fighting, which until then had largely been concentrated in the east.

Future fighting seems likely. In his November 2006 annual “Heroes Day” speech, LTTE leader Prabhakaran declared that the CFA was effectively “defunct.” Following a May 7, 2007 attack on the LTTE stronghold of Killinochchi, government defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the government would breach the terms of the 2002 CFA if necessary to safeguard national security.

In March 2007 the LTTE launched its first air strike, using a single-propeller plane to drop bombs on an air force base next to the international airport in Colombo, killing three soldiers. On April 29 the LTTE struck two oil facilities near Colombo, causing minor damage and tripping air defenses that plunged the city into darkness.

Officially the CFA remains in place, as neither side wants to be blamed for its demise. But the military realities on the ground reveal that it exists in name alone. Its formal existence allows for the continued presence of monitors of the SLMM, although the monitors have largely withdrawn to a base outside Colombo, from which they undertake short missions to the field.

14 The Agreement on a Ceasefire between the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, signed on February 21, 2002, had the stated objective to “find a negotiated solution to the ongoing ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.” The agreement set up modalities of the ceasefire, measures to restore normalcy, and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. The agreement can be viewed at (accessed May 15, 2007).

15 According to SLMM, the LTTE committed 3,827 ruled violations; the GOSL committed 346 ruled violations.

16 “Sri Lanka: Political Killings Escalate,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 15, 2005,