New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - The United States on Wednesday urged warring parties in Sri Lanka to avert a "humanitarian catastrophe" and find a peaceful solution to ethnic differences which have torn the island nation apart.
"A military solution is not possible and both the parties should try and resolve [the crisis] through peaceful means," Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering told reporters after holding talks with Indian leaders.
"The U.S. does not support any kind of independent state in Sri Lanka," Pickering asserted.
Indian Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh added: "That remains our position too."
Tamil separatists fighting for an independent homeland in the north of the country have won decisive victories against government forces in recent weeks. Some 40,000 Sri Lankan troops have been cut off by rebels and are effectively trapped in the northern Jaffna peninsula.
"We clearly believe that humanitarian considerations have become paramount and we believe that that everything must be done to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Sri Lanka," Pickering said.
In reply to questions on India's offer of humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka, he added: "We are supportive of any effort to help innocent civilians caught in the fighting."
Pickering said the U.S. was watching developments carefully, and was supportive of Norwegian mediation efforts.
Oslo's special peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim, who also held talks Wednesday in New Delhi after two days in Colombo, told reporters: "We have informed India what we are doing and they have informed us about their planning and thinking."
Solheim declined to elaborate on the talks, but said that "all different options are there."
Pickering is the first senior U.S. official to visit India since President Clinton toured in March. He said his presence was part of a "dialogue process" agreed during the president's South Asian tour.
Pickering brought with him an invitation for Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to visit the United States.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga has turned down a "conditional" Indian offer to evacuate the stranded troops from Jaffna, saying the conflict had "not reached that stage yet."
Defense analysts say a proposed evacuation would be a mammoth task.
"It will be the biggest exercise since Dunkirk, but we cannot have a Dunkirk-like situation on our hands," said one, referring to the 1941 evacuation under fire of Allied troops from the northern coast of France.
In an interview published by the Indian daily The Hindu on Wednesday, Kumaratunga said: "Humanitarian assistance is only [required] in the event that the government wants to evacuate soldiers and civilians. It hasn't reached that stage yet."
She said the Jaffna peninsula was an integral part of Sri Lanka, and Tamil Tiger (LTTE) demands for a troop withdrawal were a "joke."
"No self-respecting government could accept it."
India has placed its navy and air force on alert, and says it is ready to evacuate the troops from Jaffna under the "proper conditions."
Although India has not made public the conditions for its aid, it appears a cease-fire may be one of them.
"India is not going to enter into a fire-fight in Sri Lanka if and when it finally has to engage in humanitarian assistance," Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh said.
The government is sensitive to the fact unilateral help could be seen as allying with the Sri Lankan government and alienate the Tamils in South India
Kumaratunga acknowledged that it would be difficult for India to intervene militarily because of its previous experience there.
India sent troops to Sri Lanka to fight against the LTTE in 1987 and was sucked into a bloody, 32-month bush war which left 1,200 Indian soldiers dead.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who sent in his troops in 1987, was assassinated by a Tamil assassin four years later.
"It would be a folly if India launched a military mission in Sri Lanka to help the Lankan army," warned army general Lt-Gen K.S. Brar.
"If this happens, India would antagonize the LTTE, which would turn South India into a hotbed of insurgency."
Also warning against military action in Sri Lanka, former Indian army chief S.F. Rodrigues said while there may be short-term political gains, there would be a "long-term political price" to pay.
The deputy-director of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis, C. Uday Bhaskar said: "India may not 'intervene' but it would prudent to be 'involved' in the current imbroglio.
"A collective regional or multilateral effort with India playing a substantive role is a possibility that would encourage both sides ... to cease hostilities and come to the negotiating table with greater sincerity of purpose than now demonstrated."
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are fighting for an independent homeland for minority Tamils who accuse majority Sinhalese of widespread discrimination in education and jobs. The government denies the charge.
Tamils make up 3.2 million of Sri Lanka's 18.6 million people. Though not all of them support the LTTE's extreme methods, many sympathize with the group's demand for a homeland.
More than 60,000 people have been killed in the civil war since 1983.