Gloom over Sri Lanka’s stagnant peace process intensified yesterday as hundreds of troops and police manned hurriedly erected checkpoints throughout Colombo in the wake of the assassination of the foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar.
“This is the most serious incident, the way we see it, during the 3½-year ceasefire,” said Hagrup Haukland, head of the Nordic team which monitors the truce in the island’s long-running war. “I’m sure the ceasefire is in danger more than ever before.”
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, who launched a bitter armed struggle against the Sinhalese-led government in 1983 in which at least 65,000 people have died, denied any role in Mr Kadirgamar’s murder. But most independent analysts assumed they were involved because of its highly professional nature.
The foreign minister, a Tamil but a long-time critic of the LTTE, was one of the best guarded people in Colombo. He was hit by sniper fire twice in the head, once in the throat, and once in the chest as he took a swim last Friday evening in the pool at his home in an area full of embassies.
Investigators found cartridge casings from a sniper rifle, a grenade launcher, and the remains of food and chocolate wrappers in a nearby house. Intelligence officials had spotted houses in the road being photographed by unknown people a few days earlier but did not take sufficient action, according to reliable sources yesterday.
An elderly Tamil couple who use part of the property where the used cartridges were found have been put under house arrest, but not charged. A dozen ethnic Tamils were detained for questioning, but the assassins were not thought to be among them.
“Connecting the LTTE to this killing is very wrong and it will worsen the present situation. There is no need for the LTTE to kill him. We strongly condemn this act,” said SP Thamilselvan, leader of the Tigers’ political wing. He hinted that the murder was committed by hardliners in the Sinhalese-dominated establishment as a way of discrediting the Tigers.
The prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, rejected the denial: “We must get the international community to pressure the LTTE to stop these killings.”
Mr Kadirgamar’s assassination is the latest in a string of murders of government officials and Tamils critical of the LTTE. A popular Tamil TV presenter, Relangi Selvarajah, and her husband were also gunned down on Friday in Colombo.
Peace talks which followed the ceasefire have been suspended for over a year, leaving the LTTE’s demands for autonomy unmet. Largely because of disputes among Sinhalese parties, it took almost six months after last December’s tsunami for the government and the Tigers to agree how to share out foreign aid for reconstruction in the north and east where most Tamils live.
That deal was challenged in the high court as giving the Tamils more power than the constitution allows. Political tensions are also rising in the south ahead of national elections expected this autumn.
In a TV address last night, the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga said the peace process will continue. “We can’t let terror and hatred overcome us. As long as the ethnic problem remains unresolved violence and terror will always be with us.”
Although the government and LTTE still promise to maintain the ceasefire, the outlook for talks has never been bleaker. “Any advancement of the peace process will be politically difficult now,” Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the independent thinktank the Centre for Policy Alternatives, said yesterday.
“There is a widespread perception that it was the LTTE who killed Kadirgamar, so the question becomes what kind of signal do they want to send. My view is that they want to maintain control and internal cohesion within their own organisation and their public.”