KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka, July 17 (Reuters) - Tamil Tiger rebels warned on Sunday of an imminent return to Sri Lanka's two-decade civil war, vowing to carry arms in government-held areas -- a move that could rupture a three-year ceasefire.
Rebels would take counter-measures if the military follows through on a vow to stop them, S.P. Thamilselvan, head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) political wing, told a news conference in the northern stronghold of Kilinochchi.
Analysts said the latest Tiger statement, which comes after a string of warnings and an ultimatum demanding the government safeguards their cadres in the restive east after a spate of attacks, could be a prelude to war.
"We are in reality moving very fast towards the end of the peace efforts," Thamilselvan told reporters. "Our patience too has come to an end."
"The Tamil people are justified in thinking war is imminent and would take place soon," he added. "In the future we shall take to our usual mode of travel arrangements. And if the military obstructs it, the ceasefire agreement will enter a critical stage."
Thamilselvan said a Supreme Court ruling that blocks a government pact to share $3 billion worth of tsunami aid with the Tigers only underlined the fact the Tamil people could not expect justice from the majority Sinhalese.
His stern words came after a two week deadline he gave the government to ensure the safety of rebel cadres while in military-held areas -- where they are allowed to go under the terms of the 2002 truce -- lapsed.
The Tigers have closed their political offices in government-held areas in the east and pulled their cadres back to pockets of jungle they control.
Analysts and diplomats say the standoff could spark an armed confrontation, breaking the truce and raising the spectre of a return to a civil war that has killed over 64,000 people.
"I would take this seriously," said Iqbal Athas, a defence analyst for Jane's Defence Weekly. "I would not say it would be war immediately, but it would certainly be the beginning of hostilities."
"The ceasefire agreement makes express provisions to prevent them from carrying arms, so if you are expressly saying (that), you are also saying the ceasefire is off," he added.
Dozens of rebel cadres, police, soldiers and civilians have been killed in recent months despite the ceasefire.
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