Sri Lanka’s government said today it will not unilaterally violate a ceasefire with the Tamil Tiger rebels, but would do everything necessary to safeguard its citizens after the military accused the rebels of assassinating the country’s foreign minister.
“No instruction contrary to the existing order to maintain the ceasefire has been given,” said Harim Peiris, a spokesman for President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
However, the government said the killing represented a “grave setback” to the peace process and President Kumaratunga declared a state of emergency after Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was assassinated late on Friday.
The military blamed rebel snipers for the attack, but the Tigers have denied involvement.
Armed forces stepped up security across the island, deploying helicopters and other aircraft to monitor the rebels’ movements on the ground and patrol boats to guard the coastline, some of which is Tiger-controlled.
Soldiers were checking all vehicles coming in and out of the capital, Colombo, said military spokesman Brigadier Daya Ratnayake.
The state of emergency lets the military make arrests, interrogate suspects and search houses at will. It bans public gatherings, gives the president law-making powers and allows media censorship.
Jayantha Dhanapala, head of the government body handling the peace process, said the killing was “a grave setback to the peace process”.
Dhanapala added: “Restarting (the peace process) will be seriously undermined.”
Government spokesman Nimal Siripala de Silva said: “The (Tigers’) website has denied it, but we find it extremely difficult to accept the denial.”
The Tigers began fighting in 1983 for an independent homeland for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils in a conflict that killed 65,000 people before a Norway-brokered ceasefire in 2002.
The truce remains fragile, with disagreements over the Tigers’ demand for wide autonomy in the island’s north east.
The rebels control wide swaths of north eastern Sri Lanka and run a parallel administration with an infantry, navy and even traffic police.
The Black Tigers, a band of rebel suicide bombers, are credited with killing many people, including the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Lakshman Kadirgamar, 73, was shot in the head and heart at about 11pm on Friday night (6pm Irish time).
Police official Nimal Lewke said two snipers had hidden in a building near Kadirgamar’s heavily-guarded home in Colombo’s diplomatic district and fired through a ventilation hole in an upper floor.
Police found cheese and chocolates they ate while waiting for their target, along with a grenade launcher thought to have been intended for use as a back-up weapon.
An Oxford-educated lawyer, Kadirgamar led an international campaign against the Tigers, who remain on terrorist lists in five countries, including the United States and Britain.
Long considered a top Tamil rebel assassination target, Kadirgamar had strongly supported a negotiated peace settlement.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denounced the assassination as “a vicious act of terror, which the United States strongly condemns”.
Rice urged Sri Lankans not to let the assassination lead to a resumption of civil war.
India called the assassination a “terrorist crime” and reiterated its support to the island nation’s fight against forces seeking to undermine its unity.