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Besieged Sri Lankans await aid, govt makes demand

Written by: Staff

COLOMBO, Aug 24 (Reuters) The first Red Cross ship carrying food approached Sri Lanka's Jaffna peninsula after a two week siege, but a government demand today that Tamil Tiger rebels vacate a key area was likely to prolong the fighting.

The worst conflict since a 2002 ceasefire has left the road through rebel territory to Jaffna shut and the airbase closed to civilian flights, while the sea routes have been attacked by the rebels in boats.

A Red Cross-flagged ship, which has sailed almost all the way around the island from the capital with security guarantees on both sides, was expected today but by early evening the military said she would not arrive until tomorrow.

A small ferry was also expected to sail from Trincomalee to begin the evacuation of 500 foreign nationals from the peninsula, but was also delayed. Even if the expatriates are evacuated, half a million Jaffna residents will remain trapped.

Separately, the government said it wanted Tamil Tiger rebels out of territory overlooking Trincomalee port, from which they have launched attacks on the naval base in recent months.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are seen as very unlikely to voluntarily leave the Sampur area south of Trincomalee harbour. Diplomats believe the military might try and take it by force, likely prolonging fighting and perhaps prompting rebel counter-offensives elsewhere.

''It is not possible for the government to tolerate them using Sampur,'' head of the government peace secretariat Palitha Kohona told Reuters. ''For a sovereign state that relies on Trincomalee as a lifeline, it is unacceptable.'' Diplomats said the fresh government demand was likely to cause more trouble.

COMMITTED TO PEACE? ''For the Tigers to be able to shoot at anything in Trincomalee harbour is something that the government finds very hard to accept,'' said a western diplomat. ''But making demands about Sampur is not going to bring us to peace talks.'' Today itself was calmer than some previous days, the military said. Government artillery positions fired on the Jaffna peninsula while jets hit what the military said was a rebel Sea Tiger base in the northern Tiger heartland.

The military said one rebel was killed in an exchange of fire in the northern Vavuniya district, just south of rebel territory. A man from the Sinhalese majority working for an aid group was shot dead in the tsunami-hit east, which the military blamed on the rebels.

With both sides taking probably hundreds of casualties, truce monitors hope they might gradually cease military operations and move back towards the battered 2002 ceasefire. For now, analysts say the island's two decade civil war appears to be back on.

The outgoing and incoming heads of the unarmed Nordic ceasefire monitoring mission will meet the rebels tomorrow in their de facto capital Kilinochchi to discuss the situation.

''The LTTE is always committed to the ceasefire,'' said head of the Tiger peace secretariat S Puleedevan. ''But when the Sri Lankan military launches an offensive we have to neutralise their offensive capabilities.'' REUTERS LL MIR RN2024

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