Colombo, Apr 18: A top envoy from mediator Norway headed for Sri Lanka today to meet government leaders and Tamil Tiger rebels, who are pondering whether a new government offer is enough to make them join peace talks.
Suspected rebels killed a policeman in a grenade attack overnight in the northern town of Vavuniya, an army spokesman said, in the latest violence to hit the island.
The rebels said they killed three members of a renegade faction who attacked them in the east of the country.
More than 70 people have died since the first week of April in suspected Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacks and ethnic riots, sparking fears of a new civil war.
Norway, which brokered the island's now extremely strained 2002 ceasefire, said special envoy Jon Hannsen-Bauer would fly in today for talks with both parties and try to ensure that their meeting scheduled for next week takes place.
The rebels pulled out of the talks at the weekend, accusing the government of interfering with the transport of eastern rebel commanders to a pre-talks meeting. Some diplomats believe that was just a gambit to delay or get out of the meeting.
Now, after repeated accusations from the island's Nordic truce monitoring mission that neither side was acting with its people's interests at heart, the government has agreed to allow a civilian helicopter to move the eastern commanders.
The Tigers have yet to respond.
''There is still no decision,'' said rebel media co-ordinator Daya Master from the northern rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi, which the Norwegian envoy Hannsen-Bauer will likely visit on Thursday.
Some analysts say the LTTE, well known for their brinkmanship and use of violence to extract concessions, will ultimately climb down and agree to talks, perhaps a few days late. Others, however, are becoming increasingly pessimistic.
''I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that they were just looking for an excuse not to come to the talks,'' said a Western diplomat.
In a weekend letter to Norway, the rebels said they wanted a ''conducive environment'' before they would go to talks.
Diplomats fear that may be yet another new condition, possibly the disarming of anti-Tamil armed groups in government areas.
The LTTE said today that motorcycle-riding fighters of a breakaway rebel faction, the Karuna group, had attacked one of their positions in the east late yesterday.
LTTE's Daya Master said the rebels had fought off the assault, killing three Karuna fighters and capturing a fourth.
The new government offer of helicopter transport to the rebel commanders gave heart to Colombo's stock market, battered both by the recent attacks and a previous spike in violence in December and January.
Having sunk over four per cent yesterday, by late today morning the market was up 1.6 per cent.
''It's getting very volatile over the peace process,'' said Rohan Fernando, director of C T Smith Stockbrokers. ''The concerns are over how the government will handle the situation. It is crucial for the entire country.''