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Sri Lankan rebels pull out of peace talks

Written by: Staff

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, Apr 15 (Reuters) The Tamil Tigers today said they would pull out of peace talks with the Sri Lankan government in Switzerland due to a dispute over the safe-conduct transport of rebel commanders.

The Tigers were concerned about Sri Lankan navy plans to monitor a boat that was to have taken rebel commanders based in the east and their Nordic escorts today to the Tigers' northern base, said the head of the Tiger peace secretariat.

''It is very important we meet our commanders,'' S. Puleedevan said. ''We have cancelled the transport. If we cannot meet them, Geneva is off.'' Swedish Major-General Ulf Henricsson, head of the unarmed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) tasked with monitoring the strained 2002 truce, said Tigers had agreed to allow the navy to monitor the rebel vessel from a distance.

If the rebels did not know that, they had not read the paperwork properly, he said.

''I'm worried about the situation for Sri Lankan people of all ethnic groups,'' Henricsson told Reuters outside the monitoring mission's eastern Batticaloa office, as a road convoy to pick up the rebel commanders prepared to depart.

''Those in positions of responsibility on either side are not acting in the interests of their people.'' ''The ball is entirely in the LTTE's court,'' Palitha Kohona, the government's chief peace adviser, told Reuters.

''CONCOCTED'' ''They wanted transport, we provided that capacity. A colleague of mine has suggested that they were looking for an excuse to pull out and now they have concocted one,'' he said.

Yesterday, the government had agreed to postpone next week's scheduled peace talks in Geneva until April 24-25, after the Tigers demanded that their eastern commanders be given a helicopter flight or safe-conduct in Sea Tiger vessels to the de facto rebel capital, Kilinochchi.

The two-decade fight for a Tamil homeland by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) killed more than 64,000 people on both sides and devastated north and east Sri Lanka before the 2002 truce.

In the past week a string of attacks widely blamed on the Tigers and rising ethnic violence have killed more than 40 people, leading many to fear a resumption of the civil war.

The SLMM has not ruled on who carried out the attacks, but few diplomats believe the Tigers' denials.

The rebels in turn have accused the government of being behind ethnic riots this week in which several Tamils died. These followed suspected rebel attacks in the northeastern town of Trincomalee, one of the few places in the country where large populations of Tamils, Muslims and the island's Sinhalese majority co-exist.

AMBUSH FOILED The Sri Lankan army said today it had foiled a suspected rebel ambush.

''Last night, troops arrested an LTTE cadre with two claymore mines,'' an army spokesman said. ''His purpose was to lay the claymore mines and attack army troops.'' Claymore fragmentation mines, blocks of plastic explosive that blast out a hail of steel ball bearings, have frequently been used in ambushes blamed on the LTTE.

''I believe these attacks are intended to destabilise and demoralise,'' said Palitha Kohona, head of the government peace secretariat, late yesterday.

The army said a member of the anti-Tiger Tamil political party the EPDP, a government ally of President Mahinda Rajapakse, had also been killed by suspected rebels in the eastern army-held town of Batticaloa.

The island is being pushed to the brink of war for the second time this year. In January, fighters on both sides believed war was imminent until violence fell after the Tigers agreed to the first round of Geneva talks.

In the east, the Tigers are facing off not just against the military but also against breakaway ex-rebels led by former LTTE commander Karuna Amman. The rebels say Karuna's group has government backing. The army denies the charge.

Rebel demands for Karuna to be disarmed were expected to play a large part in the Geneva talks. Colombo denies he is operating in government areas, but the name of his fledgling political party, the TVMP, is scrawled in red on almost every lamp-post in Batticaloa town.


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