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Monday, October 30, 2006

Heavy shelling in north Sri Lanka after talks fail

COLOMBO, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Heavy artillery shelling resumed in northern Sri Lanka on Monday just hours after peace talks between the government and Tamil Tigers collapsed, triggering fears of a deepening civil war.

Residents in the army-held Jaffna peninsula said fierce shelling began before dawn, an eerie reminder of months of fighting that killed hundreds of civilians, troops and rebel fighters in the run-up to the talks in Geneva.

The abortive talks ended on Sunday with both sides meeting separately with mediator Norway before failing even to agree on whether not to meet again for talks in the future.

That was a worst case scenario for many analysts, diplomats and residents, who now fear the worst fighting since a now-tattered 2002 ceasefire will resume in earnest.

Officials said the talks ran aground over a central rebel demand that the government reopen a highway that crosses through rebel territory to Jaffna, which is cut off from the rest of the island by Tiger lines and where food is in desperately short supply.

"I have been here right along in Jaffna and I have experienced enough violence, killings, bombings shellings and displacements," said 38-year-old mother-of-two Vasantha Nallathamby, venturing out into a deserted Jaffna street as artillery and multi-barrel rocket fire roared in the distance.

"Now that the talks have failed for the eighth time, I will tell you the LTTE will not keep quiet," she added. "War is inevitable."

The island's two-decade civil war has already killed more than 65,000 people since 1983, with hundreds killed and tens of thousands displaced since fighting flared in late July.

Norwegian chief mediator Erik Solheim, who oversaw the talks, said overnight both the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had said they were committed to a truce which still technically holds on paper, and had promised not to launch military offensives.

But both sides spent Sunday accusing each other of abuses and of deadlocking the talks, which analysts say were a sideshow, and sporadic fighting continued.

"Both sides still believe that they can effect a clear, definitive balance of power on the ground before they can talk about anything seriously," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of think-tank the Centre for Police Alternatives.

"I'm expecting to see more fighting. I'm expecting to see the LTTE try to create a situation in which the army is put on the defensive," he added.

Tiger political wing head and chief negotiator S.P. Thamilselvan said overnight the rebels would not participate in new talks until the A9 highway linking the north to the rest of the country was reopened -- which the government refuses to do.

The road -- nicknamed the "Highway of Death" because of past battles fought over it -- was closed in August due to fighting, choking supplies and stranding thousands of people, many of whom are still waiting to be evacuated from the peninsula by ship.

The government argues it is unsafe to reopen the road because of rebel artillery fire, but analysts say the closure is helping to give the military a strategic advantage by curbing movement of rebel fighters and munitions. (Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in GENEVA)
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