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Sri Lanka offensive continues, opposition agrees to talk

Written by: Staff

COLOMBO, Sep 1: Sri Lanka's army attacked rebel gun positions south of the strategic northeastern harbour of Trincomalee overnight, the military said.

The army is trying to take the strategic rebel-held town of Sampur, from where the rebels are in artillery range of the major naval base and able to disrupt a key maritime supply route to the besieged army-held northern Jaffna peninsula.

''We are trying to neutralise the threat to Trincomalee,'' said a military spokesman. ''Our strategy is to send people into Sampur to neutralise their artillery and mortar positions which are pointed towards the harbour.'' Back in Colombo, the main opposition party agreed to help find ways to halt the renewed civil war.

Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe wrote to President Mahinda Rajapakse saying he was ready to discuss ways ''to resolve the national issue'', party officials said. Previous collaborations came to nought, and the Tigers trust neither side.

Rajapakse, who is visiting London, met British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday to discuss lessons to be learnt from Northern Ireland's peace process.

Government Peace Secretariat head Palitha Kohona, travelling with Rajapakse, hailed what he called an ''amazingly successful'' meeting with Blair that broached a series of bilateral issues.

But he gave few specifics, instead attacking the island's outgoing chief Nordic truce monitor for blaming security forces for the execution-style murders of 17 aid workers. The incident aroused international outrage.

''Both sides expressed the hope the two parties would be back to the negotiating table sooner than later,'' Kohona told Reuters by telephone from London late yesterday. ''Britain has extensive experience in dealing with a (conflict) situation of this nature.'' He said Blair did not raise the issue of the slain aid workers.


Kohona said Major-General Ulf Henricsson, who ended his stint as head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring mission overnight, had gone too far. The Swedish soldier left the job after the Tigers demanded all monitors from European Union member states quit the island in light of the bloc's branding of the Tigers as a terrorist group.

''Unfortunately General Henricsson acted in a precipitate manner,'' Kohona said. ''To come up with a determination just now, before giving the formal processes a chance, I think was unncessarily provocative and a general stepping out of line.'' The United Nations threatened this week to suspend aid operations in Sri Lanka unless those responsible for the killings were held accountable.

The monitors say that Sri Lankan authorities have obstructed their efforts to investigate, and they are convinced no armed groups other than the security services could have been responsible.

A new bout of civil war between the military and Tamil Tigers is now in its fifth week. The 2002 ceasefire, technically still in force, survives only on paper.

Hundreds of troops, civilians and rebels have been killed since the violence flared, and more than 200,000 people have been displaced. Diplomats see little real commitment from the government to de-escalate the situation.

The Tigers say they are fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in the north and east.

Analysts expect the renewed war to rumble on. They say any idea of a return to the negotiating table for talks to end a conflict that has killed more than 65,000 people since 1983 is a dim and distant prospect.


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