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Japan envoy arrives in S.Lanka as violence goes on

By Staff
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COLOMBO, May 6 (Reuters) Government troops came under fire in Sri Lanka's north today as Japanese peace envoy Yasushi Akashi arrived on the island for the latest in a series of attempts to prevent a return to civil war.

Suspected Tamil Tiger rebel attacks, ethnic riots, government air strikes and unsolved murders blamed on both sides have killed more than 200 people since early April. A ragged 2002 ceasefire still holds along most front lines, however.

A day after the government military said they had destroyed a Sea Tiger suicide attack boat and a truck-mounted heavy gun in battle, the army said troops had been attacked in the army-held northern Tamil town of Jaffna.

''They came under fire from the LTTE,'' said a military spokesman, referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

''One soldier was injured. The troops did not return fire because the area was so congested.'' Both sides say they want to return to peace talks, but diplomats fear the country may plunge back into civil war which killed more than 64,000 people over two decades.

Japan's Akashi arrived in Colombo this evening and was expected to meet President Mahinda Rajapakse and Tiger political leader SP Thamilselvan on Monday and Tuesday respectively, delivering the message that the international community does not want to see a new conflict.

Japan is Sri Lanka's biggest aid donor. Akashi is an experienced diplomat who was the UN's envoy in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

Norwegian-brokered peace talks were due to take place last month in Switzerland, but the Tigers pulled out indefinitely, citing a dispute over the transport of eastern rebel commanders to a pre-talks meeting and accusing the army of attacks on Tamil civilians.

INTERNATIONAL MESSAGE The government has agreed to a Tiger request that a private seaplane be used to move rebels from patches of territory they hold in the east to their northern headquarters, but new disputes issues have arisen over the road transport to the seaplane landing site.

Diplomats fear neither side is willing to make the concessions necessary for talks. Sri Lanka's main donors -- Japan, Norway, the European Union and the United States -- met in Oslo last month, and Akashi will carry their message.

Diplomats say he is likely to warn the government that the international community does not want to see more air strikes and that the government must do more to protect Tamil rights. The army denies attacking civilians, but increasing numbers of Tamils have been found dead near army camps in the north.

He is also expected to warn the Tigers that attacks on the military in the Tamil-dominated north and east, where the rebels want a separate Tamil homeland, would prompt international action, such as being banned as a terrorist group by the European Union.

A visit by Norwegian peace envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer last month yielded little, and hopes for Akashi's visit are cautious at best.

''I think this will be mostly symbolic,'' said one Colombo-based diplomat. ''But this cycle of violence cannot continue.'' REUTERS PM RN2212

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