Sri Lanka, Tiger rebels at war - monitor
COLOMBO, May 13 (Reuters) Sri Lanka's military and the island's Tamil Tiger rebels have returned to a ''low-intensity war'' despite a ceasefire that still technically holds on paper, the head of the unarmed Nordic truce monitors said today.
''You could in some definition say we already have a war. We don't have a peace agreement, we have a ceasefire agreement. So there is a war ongoing. It is a low-intensity war. You can say that,'' Major General Ulf Henricsson, head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), told Reuters in an interview.
Henricsson's comments came after the government bombed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) territory in the island's north on Thursday after the rebels attacked a navy flotilla and killed 17 sailors in the worst clash since the 2002 ceasefire.
The government and the Tigers say they remain committed to the ceasefire, but with more than 270 deaths estimated since early April, analysts say the violence resembles periods of the two-decade civil war in which over 64,000 people died. Monitors have avoided using the term ''war'' in recent times.
Analysts say the Tigers have essentially declared war on the military with a spray of recent attacks, but do not want to be seen to be the ones to officially pull out of the truce in the eyes of the international community and supporters abroad.
WARNING BY TIGERS Henricsson dismissed a warning by the Tigers that his monitors should stay off navy vessels or face the consequences in any future attacks, saying his 60-strong team would continue to do their job.
''I make my own decision on this matter, and I think their warning, as they call it, is more or less a threat and (the naval attack was) a clear violation of the ceasefire agreement,'' he added.
''Will SLMM continue to have observers with the navy? Yes, We will. Just now my naval team is discussing how to go further in this matter. They will give us advice on how we can solve this.
But we will still be on the sea one way or another,'' he said.
However, the monitors have suspended joining navy patrols for a few days to brief staff and to assess the situation.
Thursday's clash came on the heels of a suspected rebel assassination attempt on Sri Lanka's army commander in April, which was followed by aerial bombing of Tiger positions in the east, and by a series of deadly ambushes on the military.
It also comes after a rash of extrajudicial killings of Tamil civilians, some of which Henricsson believes government troops have been involved in.
The Tigers, who want to carve out a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in the north and east where they already run a de facto state, have pulled out of peace talks indefinitely and have threatened to retaliate if attacked or if Navy vessels enter waters off land they control.
The SLMM angered the rebels by telling them they had no rights at sea, and that Sri Lanka's territorial waters fall under government control.
''We are not prepared to relinquish sovereign rights to the seas which we have won with the sacrifice of our people,'' Col. Soosai, head of the Tigers sea arm, was quoted as saying on pro-rebel Web site www.tamilnet.com.
''We will not hesitate to wage war with anyone who attempts to prevent us from exercising our freedom,'' he added.
The European Union condemned the Tigers for attacking the navy, but has stopped short of listing the Tigers as a banned terrorist organisation, as a clutch of countries including the United States have done.
''The reckless behaviour of the LTTE in the last days can only contribute to a dangerous escalation that results in growing hostilities and jeopardises any possibility for future peace talks,'' the European Union said in a statement.
REUTERS SY RN2329