LIKE every Buddhist monk, the Venerable Athuraliye Rathana believes in peace, harmony and loving kindness. But unlike most, he believes the best way to pursue such virtues is to fight a war to the death with his enemies.

Rathana, mischievously nicknamed a "war monk" by Sri Lanka's press, speaks passionately of harmony but believes it will only come after the Tamil Tigers have all been killed and their political movement decisively crushed by the army. To carry out this aim he gave up a quiet life of meditation to found a political party to press for war, winning a parliamentary seat along with nine fellow monks in 2004 on an anti-peace talks platform effectively ending hopes of a negotiated end to Sri Lanka's long-running, bitter civil conflict.

Now the monks are in the government and, with savage fighting in the north and suicide bombers attacking the capital Colombo, they are cheerleaders for generals who want to kill 500 guerrillas per month and overrun the northern enclave held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the end of this year.

Diplomats, aid workers, and many Sri Lankans have all warned that instead of ending the island nation's long agony, the surge in fighting, the worst in a decade, is more likely to revive flagging support for the Tamils.

The mood of fear on an island paradise beloved by British holidaymakers is a far cry from the hopes of 2002 when, amid war-weariness and intense international lobbying, a peace process seemed to promise an end to the fighting. Sri Lanka's war monks have played a key role in wrecking that dream.

With his robe, shaved head, and gentle demeanour, their spokesman Rathana looks every inch the man of peace until he opens his mouth. "Peace negotiations simply made the LTTE stronger," he said. "We mustn't talk to them, we can crush the LTTE. It is like surgery. I don't like war, we need peace. But the LTTE is killing people every day. The West fights terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq and, like them, we have to fight it here. It simply has to be finished. We can't go on and on." Only a minority of monks in Sri Lanka support the political party founded by the hardliners, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU, the National Heritage Party), with its jumble of policies and arguments against terrorism and drinking alcohol, and vague platitudes in favour of social justice. But its underlying ideology is an ugly form of Sinhalese nationalism.

Rathana described the coming of Buddhism 2300 years ago and its defence against Hindu kings, Christian colonists and the Tamil ethnic group, which arrived in Sri Lanka centuries ago. The Sinhalese ethnic majority justify discrimination against the latter by insisting that most arrived to pick tea for the British in the 19th century.

For Rathana, the long, complex war is not a matter of political power but a simple affair of good versus evil, flavoured by Sinhalese sectarianism and paranoia. He promises that after victory over the LTTE, the Tamil population in the north will be well-treated although in the past that has not happened.

The Tigers are a frighteningly effective terrorist force often compared to a cult, enforcing control over moderate Tamils by assassination and fear. But their support has always stemmed from unhappiness about discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese.

Rathana believes the strategy is working and he is sure that he can go back to his monastery after two more years with his mission accomplished. He does not understand why foreigners think Buddhists are pacifists. The Dalai Lama once had an army, he points out, and the Buddha did not prohibit his followers from defending themselves.

He is a moderate by the party's standards. Other JHU members have made crudely sectarian threats against Tamils and there are even more extreme Buddhist monks who have on occasion brawled with peace protesters at rallies.

Udaya Gammanpila, JHU deputy secretary, insists the war strategy will help Tamil civilians. "We have to kill the killer to save the innocent," he said.

"We can bring happiness to people by destroying the LTTE." His only fear is that international pressure will stop the government from pursuing the war.

"My message to foreign governments is: let us finish this our way," he added.

Diplomats in Colombo are distinctly uneasy about the stage the long war has reached. Few think it is anywhere near an end, even if the Tamils' mini-state in the north is about to be overrun.

Some observers believe the fighting is much bloodier than the army admits journalists are not allowed near the frontlines and there are concerns that Tamil civilians could suffer grievously if the territory controlled by the LTTE for years is overrun.

A federal solution is widely considered the only workable way out of a horrible war. But with hardliners in the ascendant, that looks highly unlikely at the moment.