Lanka and rebels rearm despite talks- Army chief

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Colombo, Mar 24: Sri Lanka's military and Tamil Tiger rebels are both re-arming even as they prepare for a new round of talks in Switzerland, the army chief said today, saying the 2002 ceasefire has too many loopholes.

Violence in Sri Lanka's minority Tamil-dominated north and east pushed the island to the brink of war in January but has fallen off sharply since the two sides agreed to hold their first direct talks since 2003. But Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka said both sides were continuing to prepare for battle.

''I know they are building up the capacity of their military,'' he said of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

''I don't know that they can build up their forces and be serious about peace. We also are building our forces. But building up a legitimate army is very different from building up a terrorist force.'' Both sides repeatedly say they want to avoid a return to Sri Lanka's two-decade civil war, which killed more than 64,000 people and shaved an estimated 1-2 percentage points a year off economic growth before the 2002 truce.

But the rebels have warned that unless concessions are made, war may return.

At the launch of a new army Web site in part aimed at highlighting rebel ceasefire breaches, Fonseka told reporters the Tigers had increased recruitment of children. UN children's agency UNICEF says there is no evidence child recruitment is up.

Fonseka said the rebels are firing at the army to try and provoke them, but the Tigers were not ''misbehaving'' as seriously as before the talks were agreed. It is now over a month since a suspected rebel attack injured a soldier.

TRADING ALLEGATIONS The Tigers have been using their own Web sites to describe a litany of alleged army abuses, all denied by the military, in the run-up to the next round of talks due to take place in Switzerland next month.

They also say the army has been using a renegade group of ex-rebels, called the Karuna group, to attack them.

Earlier in the week, chief rebel negotiator Anton Balasingham told Reuters the rebels might postpone talks in Geneva in April unless the government disarms Karuna. Nordic truce monitors say Karuna has operated in government territory with the army at least turning a blind eye, but Fonseka denied it.

''There are no Karuna camps in army territory,'' he said. ''We have armed groups -- you have the criminal underworld and various people, even in Colombo. The Tigers call some people guerrillas. But some people call the Tigers guerrillas...'' But the Karuna group was operating in Tiger territory, he said, and was attacking the mainstream rebels -- although without the support of anyone in the military.

Fonseka, a battle-scarred infantry officer wounded in action with the rebels in the north, said he believed the 2002 truce needed amending to stop the rebels exploiting loopholes.

The Tigers say they will not agree to any ceasefire change.

''It's not OK as it is,'' he said. ''There's a lot of loopholes. The LTTE has always been taking advantage of that.

If the forces had been consulted (when it was drawn up) I don't think they would have come up with something like that.''

Reuters

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