IT seems certain that the intended target of the bloody suicide bombing in Sri Lanka on Friday was the country's Junior Defence Minister and chief military strategist, Anuruddha Ratwatte. Not for the first time, Mr Ratwatte survived an attempt on his life. Tragically 20 people - civilians and police - who were caught by the blast were not so lucky. Along with these deaths, it is also quite possible that hopes for an end to the Government's protracted war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were also a victim of the blast. Mr Ratwatte is seen by the Tigers as the main obstacle in achieving a military victory over Sri Lanka's 100,000-strong army. It was Mr Ratwatte who masterminded the biggest tactical blow to the rebels' cause in recent times - the 1985 recapture of their stronghold of Jaffna. But Mr Ratwatte appears to lead a charmed life: he is the survivor of two previous assassination attempts as well as a helicopter crash in Tiger-held territory. Despite taking the glittering military prize of Jaffna, which was of great psychological value to the Government, Mr Ratwatte has also provided evidence that the struggle to bring peace to the country can not be successful through military means. Government forces - vast as they are for such a small country - do not have the resources, perhaps not even the real will, to finally crush the Tigers. In 1997 Mr Ratwatte launched a major military campaign to capture the 70km road to Jaffna. After achieving initial successes, he was forced to concede that the cost of proceeding would be too high - the losses were simply unacceptable. More than 6,000 rebels and government troops died. Once again, it was under Mr Ratwatte that government forces suffered a series of humiliating defeats in November last year, when the Tigers overran and seized scores of villages and two towns in the north of the island. Such are the inconclusive ebbs and flows of the 17-year war. No sensible observer can believe any longer in a military solution. The Tamils, who make up just 18 per cent of the country's population, have had uneasy relations with the majority Sinhalese population for centuries. Frequently, land disputes between the two ethnic groups have erupted into violence. Only towards the end of British rule did the two enemies unite to oppose the colonial masters. For most ordinary Sri Lankans, both Tamil and Sinhalese, the violence is now merely an obstacle to progress. For years it has held back the country's economic development by frightening off foreign investors and tempering the growth of tourism. Finally, however, despite fierce pockets of political resistance, a real push for peace has begun. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who won office for a second term in December, campaigned to end the war and has pieced together a devolution plan for parts of the island. Inevitably, the President - herself a survivor of an assassination attempt in which she lost the use of her right eye - faces opposition from Sinhalese nationalists who claim she is preparing to concede too much. Others believe the proposal, which falls short of the Tigers' demand for an independent homeland, will not prove acceptable to them. President Kumaratunga, herself, has certainly blown hot and cold on the idea of a brokered settlement before. At the very least, her attitude has been ambiguous. This led a Tamil newspaper last year to print a cartoon showing the President with two heads. One head said there would be no talks with the rebels and the other that there could be no peace without talks. Following the attack on her, President Kumaratunga vowed to crush the Tigers and called on the Tamil community to abandon its dream of a separate state. Just a month later, the President, in what was widely seen as a courageous gesture, was once again pushing forward with plans for peace talks brokered by senior Norwegian diplomats. What is different about this latest initiative is that it has the backing - albeit sceptical backing - of the main opposition party. So what political gain the Tigers hoped to achieve by Friday's atrocity is unclear; certainly they have earned themselves only opprobrium. Many people will now renew their calls for a military solution. And, despite the President's enlightened statement following the bombing that the Government will press on with talks, maintaining a united political impetus may be beyond her abilities. Certainly it will be an extremely tough challenge. But, if there is a glimmer of hope that the bloodshed that has claimed 61,000 lives since 1983 can be stopped, then it is a challenge that must be faced.