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Saturday, August 05, 2006

S. Lanka rebels halt eastern offensive-Tiger source

MUTUR, Aug 5 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels said they had halted an offensive on a government-held town in the east on Saturday and were pulling back, a sign that conflict on the island may be easing off.

The government said hostilities would stop if the Tigers kept their word.

The pull-back comes after days of shelling and mortar and artillery duels around the eastern town of Mutur, just south of the port city of Trincomalee.

Mutur was infiltrated by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels earlier this week and is now a ghost town, buildings badly damaged and riddled with bullet holes.

"The offensive operation in Mutur has stopped and the LTTE is going back to its former positions in our own territory," a Tiger source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "There is no ceasefire yet."

"It was a limited operation, and we are doing this on humanitarian grounds," the source added, saying the Tigers want thousands of Muslims who fled on Friday to return home.

The government said it was not interested in chasing the Tigers.

"We are not going to chase them ... We wanted certain areas cleared of terrorists and we have done that," said Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella. "Once the last single Tiger leaves (government territory) the firing will stop.

"But if they come back again we will have to hold the territory and safeguard the civilians," he added. "They have absolutely no right to step into (Mutur)."

Officials said the military would continue to clear newly laid landmines from around a sluice gate they accuse the rebels of blocking to choke the flow of water to farmers in government areas -- the original trigger for the violence.

The fighting has been the most intense and prolonged since a 2002 ceasefire between the rebels and the government.

Diplomats and analysts say the truce holds only on paper and that a two-decade civil war that has killed more than 65,000 people since 1983 has resumed.


Aid workers estimate 20,000 to 30,000 civilians fled from Mutur on Friday to escape shelling, several thousand of whom have reached the government-held town of Kantale around 20 miles (30 km) southwest. The military put the number closer to 10,000-15,000.

The navy ferried journalists south across Trincomalee harbour into Mutur for the first time since the fighting, landing them on the beach in small assault boats. As troops checked buildings for booby-traps, reporters heard mortar and small arms fire nearby.

Along the water line, houses already damaged by the 2004 tsunami stood deserted. The navy camp at the jetty was devastated and just two civilians were seen on the streets.

The navy said between 30-40 Tiger fighters were moving from house to house in the outer suburbs of Mutur. Troops looked exhausted, their faces covered with grime and weapons hanging loosely at their sides.

The military accused the Tigers of killing 100 civilians during Friday's civilian exodus, citing witnesses. Muslim politician Rauf Hakeem said witnesses told him an suspected army shell had hit a Tiger checkpoint as civilians passed through, killing five people.

The military said it believed it killed around 150 Tigers during a battle for control of a jetty in Mutur on Friday, but analysts say the two sides vastly inflate enemy death tolls as a propaganda war rages.

The Tigers say 12 of their fighters were killed during the entire offensive on Mutur.

Well over 800 people have been killed so far this year in escalating attacks and military clashes. The Tigers are furious at President Mahinda Rajapakse's rejection of their demand for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in the north and east.

The government insists it is committed to the 2002 truce, but analysts fear more clashes are in store.

"The government can play with semantics, but it's hard to see what's going on as anything but a war," said one Western diplomat.

Visiting Norwegian special peace envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer flew to the island's northern army-held Jaffna peninsula to meet civic leaders, and is due to meet the Tigers' political leadership in their northern base of Kilinochchi on Sunday.

However his visit is to discuss the future of Nordic truce monitors after European Union member nations decided to pull staff out in the face of a rebel ultimatum, and analysts say any return to peace talks is a dim and distant prospect.

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