Colombo, May 5: A Tamil Tiger rebel boat exploded during a clash with the Sri Lankan navy off the island's northwestern coast today, naval sources said, as peace talks remained deadlocked.
More than 200 people have died in the past month as violence soared, raising fears a 2002 truce might collapse completely. Both sides say they want talks, but until thorny transport issues are solved most analysts expect violence to worsen.
''There is a confrontation at sea,'' a naval source said. ''We have retaliated and one of their suicide boats exploded.'' He said there were no naval casualties, but he had no word of losses on the other side.
Other naval sources said two naval patrol boats had seen two Sea Tiger boats close to Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) territory in northwestern Mannar district. The sources said the rebels shot at the boats, which returned fire.
Two more Tiger vessels then appeared, the sources said, and the navy also fired on them. One of the newly arrived rebel craft exploded, suggesting it was a suicide attack boat, they added.
Another military source said air force jets were en route to Mannar to help the navy locate the remaining Sea Tiger craft, but there was no word on whether the aircraft would attack.
Last week, the military launched air strikes on rebel territory after a suicide attack on army headquarters in the capital. The strikes ceased after two days, but hawkish elements in the government are said to want them restarted.
The government says it still hopes talks can take place with the rebels next week in Geneva, but the rebels pulled out of talks indefinitely last month and the two sides cannot even agree the transport of eastern rebel leaders to a pre-talks meeting.
The rebels say their latest complaint involves the road transport of eastern leaders to a seaplane that will then take them to their northern headquarters. They have turned down every transport offer made by the government, which itself refuses to give in to rebel demands that a military helicopter be used.
Some analysts say neither side really wants to meet, and that hardliners on both sides are keen to prompt a confrontation and return to a two-decade war that has already killed more than 64,000 people.
President Mahinda Rajapakse has repeatedly ruled out Tiger demands for an ethnic Tamil homeland in the island's north and east. Analysts say violence is widening ethnic divisions.
In the north, few dare walk the streets after recent violence. Each side accuses the other of murders, attacks and assassinations, and few hold out much hope even if talks take place on May 10 as the government hopes.
''No-one is safe,'' said 50-year-old Tamil audit firm manager Silvarajah Rajanayagam, one of the few still willing to walk the war-battered streets of the northern town of Jaffna.
''Yesterday we had nine or ten killings. Whether it is civilians or the army, it is all human life.''