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Friday, October 13, 2006

New front opens in Sri Lanka fighting after record military losses

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's warring parties opened a new front in the east after the government admitted losing 129 soldiers in fierce fighting that cast a shadow over peace talks planned at the end of the month.

The security forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on Friday blamed each other for the flareup in Ampara after heavy fighting on the northern Jaffna peninsula on Wednesday.

"LTTE terrorists launched artillery and mortar shells towards the police Special Task Force (STF) defences," at Kandjikudiaru in Ampara, the defence ministry said.

It said there were no reports of casualties in the overnight artillery exchanges.

"The Liberation Tigers fighters were engaged in defensive clashes with the STF troopers, according to the Tiger political head of Ampara district," the pro-rebel Tamilnet.com website said.

The fighting in the east came as violence subsided in the north after Wednesday's intense battles in Jaffna where security forces suffered the biggest single loss of life since entering a truce with the Tigers in 2002.

The military lost at least 129 soldiers killed and 515 wounded but reported killing 200 rebels, a claim denied by the Tigers who put their casualties at 10 dead.

Among the dead were 74 soldiers the government said were captured and then killed, "violating all norms and regulations of human rights and Geneva conventions".

Despite the flareup in the eastern province, diplomats said Oslo was planning to send special envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer to work out details for peace talks later this month.

"They have now agreed on a time and venue, but there is the question of logistics and a lot of details to be sorted out," a diplomat said.

He said Japan, Sri lanka's main financial backer, was also sending special peace envoy Yasushi Akashi to the island on Sunday to meet with the Colombo authorities and the Tiger leadership.

The heavy bloodshed -- for which each side blamed the other -- had raised serious doubts over the talks scheduled for October 28 at a venue in Switzerland.

The exact location of the talks had not been decided, diplomats said.

Neither the government nor the Tigers have said they would not attend the proposed talks, but they have yet to announce their negotiating teams. In the past, lengthy haggling over logistics has frequently delayed or scuppered scheduled negotiations.

The battle had erupted Wednesday only hours after Norway's top peace broker, Erik Solheim, announced the resumption of negotiations.

The United States, a key backer of Sri Lanka's faltering peace bid, said it was "deeply concerned that ongoing violence in Sri Lanka is putting the agreement (to resume talks) at risk."

Norway has been working to restore the 2002 ceasefire and end spiralling violence which has claimed more than 2,200 lives since December, according to an official tally.

More than 60,000 people have been killed in the three-decades-old conflict for a Tamil homeland on the Sinhalese majority island.
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