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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Violence rages as Sri Lanka talks start in Oslo

COLOMBO, June 8 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's government and Tamil Tiger rebels accused each other of attacks on Thursday, as talks on the safety of the island's Nordic unarmed ceasefire monitoring mission began in Oslo.

More than 400 people have been killed since early April and the island's north and east is now locked in a low-intensity conflict. But the Oslo meeting, the first since February, will only centre on the role of the Nordic mission monitoring what is left of a 2002 ceasefire.

The army said one officer was killed and a soldier wounded in a suspected rebel mine attack in the north-western Mannar district on Thursday. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said two civilians were killed in nearby rebel territory.

The Tigers blamed government forces operating behind rebel lines in contravention of the truce. The army denied the charge.

"The attack is suspected to have targeted one of the Mannar LTTE commanders who was travelling just five minutes behind the vehicle that was hit," the rebels said in a statement.

The two dead were contractors from the Sinhalese majority working on restoring a reservoir, the ethnic Tamil rebels said. Another mine attack on a health services vehicle in northern Tiger territory wounded four, they said.

Earlier in the day, the Tigers reported shelling near the northeastern port of Trincomalee, while the army said one of their camps near the eastern town of Batticaloa had come under mortar fire. Each denied the other's charge.

On Wednesday, the Tigers said a civilian tractor was blasted by an army-laid mine near Batticaloa, killing 10. The military denied any involvement in that attack.


The army said it had reports of incidents in rebel territory, possibly attacks by renegade ex-Tigers the Karuna group, but denied any involvement. The government denies backing Karuna, but the feud is seen as one of the central impediments to peace.

If violence continues, many fear that in time it could spiral back to a full scale civil war that killed more than 64,000 people and devastated the island's minority Tamil dominated north and east, where the Tigers want a separate homeland.

But discussions at the Oslo meeting, which continues until Friday, will not move beyond the operations of the 60-person Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM).

"It is positive that the parties have come to Oslo to discuss the situation of the SLMM," said a statement from Norway's development minister Erik Solheim, who brokered the original truce. "The agenda for the meeting is limited to SLMM, and we haven't got any further expectations."

SLMM has been caught in several firefights and angered both sides by accusing them of repeated ceasefire breaches. They blamed members of the armed forces for extra-judicial killings and ruled the rebels had no right to send their Sea Tiger warships to sea.

Angry after the European Union last month listed them as terrorists alongside al Qaeda, the Tigers have hinted they want monitors from EU states withdrawn from the SLMM.

Diplomats say bringing the two parties together -- even if only to discuss SLMM -- offers some hopes of a breakthrough on other issues, such as Tiger demands the government rein in Karuna or an agreement to resume substantive peace talks.

"If there is no progress, then I think there will be a slow escalation," said a Western diplomat. (Additional reporting by Joe Ariyaratnam in JAFFNA and James Kilner in OSLO)
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