COLOMBO, Apr 20: A top Norwegian peace envoy flew to Sri Lanka's north today to meet Tamil Tiger rebels, hoping to bring them to scheduled peace talks next week against a backdrop of rising violence, random killings and distrust.
Around 80 people have been killed since the end of the first week in April in a series of suspected Tiger attacks, ethnic riots and an increasing number of unsolved murders that the two sides blame on each other, as fears of a new civil war grow.
Norway, which brokered the island's battered 2002 ceasefire, has sent envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer to try to overcome the obstacles and secure talks in Switzerland.
''A lot will depend on Mr Bauer's diplomacy,'' said Jehan Perera, director of think-tank the National Peace Council. ''My guess ... is that there will be another postponement.'' The Tigers say they will not go to Geneva until they can meet their eastern rebel commanders for a meeting. But they pulled out of a previous scheme by Nordic ceasefire monitors to escort them by land and sea and have yet to accept a government offer to use private helicopters for the transport.
The government said on Wednesday the helicopter offer would only last another 72 hours.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have also said they want killings of ethnic Tamil civilians to stop before they go to talks, and diplomats increasingly believe they are simply looking for ways to stop the talks from happening at all.
If the talks do not take place, most expect recent violence -- the worst since the ceasefire was signed -- to increase, and fear it could lead to a new war on an island hard hit by the 2004 tsunami.
Others say the Tigers are masters of brinkmanship, and that they simply want to raise the stakes before going to the talks to strengthen their negotiating position.
The Tigers say they want breakaway ex-rebel faction the Karuna group, which has been attacking them in the east, disarmed or at least stopped from launching attacks from government areas. The government denies backing the group, says it does not know where the Karuna fighters are and is seen unlikely to do anything.
So far, Hanssen-Bauer's trip has seen limited results. He was not able to get a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapakse, seeing instead the prime minister and foreign minister.
Government officials say Norway has been too soft on the Tigers.
Nor will Hanssen-Bauer be meeting reclusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, instead meeting the head of the Tiger political wing S.P. Thamilselvan.
Yesterday, as he met government officials, suspected Tiger ambushes wounded two navy sailors and a Korean businessman in two mine attacks.
If talks do happen, few expect a breakthrough on dealing with Karuna, let alone the Tigers' core demand for a separate ethnic Tamil homeland in the north and east.