Friday, January 27, 2006

Clash erupts in Sri Lanka a day after peace deal by Peter Apps

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's military and Tamil Tiger rebels both said they came under attack on Thursday, a day after the two sides agreed to hold fresh peace talks in Geneva.

The rebels said the army had killed one of their men in an ambush, while the military said unidentified attackers had fired rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) at a bunker.

Military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said he did not know who was behind the attack on a position near a major eastern supply route, but two RPG rounds were fired from a rebel area after an unconfirmed "incident" behind Tiger lines.

Tiger peace secretariat head, S. Puleedevan, said a senior Tiger fighter had been killed and another injured in an ambush in the east carried out by paramilitary forces and the army.

He did not say Wednesday's deal to hold peace talks in Switzerland was threatened, but said the rebels were upset.

"The leadership is seriously disturbed," he told Reuters from the rebel de facto capital Kilinochchi. "This is not going to help the peace process. Definitely it is going to create problems."

Earlier on Thursday, the Tigers freed a policeman as a goodwill gesture after agreeing to talks in Geneva with the government to stabilize the ceasefire.

The stock market soared on news of fresh talks, but many in the war-weary north and east were less euphoric even before the sides began trading accusations.

"I like peace," a soldier said as he patrolled the northern army-held enclave of Jaffna, surrounded by territory controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the scene of some recent attacks.

"But I have experienced peace talks three times and every time it ends with the LTTE attacking us."

One Tamil civilian was killed overnight by unknown gunmen in the east, the army said. Diplomats fear more killings could sabotage the peace deal, particularly if the government is not seen cracking down on those responsible. In Colombo, an army grenade misfire started brief bomb rumors.


A recent string of suspected rebel attacks on government troops nearly destroyed a 2002 truce and brought the island to the edge of a return to civil war.

Troops in Jaffna were still moving on foot instead of in vehicles, which have been repeatedly attacked by suspected Tiger ambushes, while the navy said it had intercepted a boat smuggling mine detonators heading toward rebel territory from India.

Although shaky, the current ceasefire is the longest since the Tigers began their fight for a Tamil homeland two decades ago. But fighters on both sides had expected war if Norwegian peace broker Erik Solheim had not been able to break a deadlock and agree a venue for talks.

The government had refused to go to Norway, which has been facilitating the island's peace process since 1998 but which some of the Sinhalese majority say is too pro-rebel. The Tigers had refused to go anywhere else.

Agreeing to meet in Geneva, the rebels said they would stop violence if alleged army abuse of Tamil civilians ceased.

They also pledged to release one of three child protection policemen held since September when they strayed into rebel territory as they tried to catch a suspected British pedophile. Diplomats said the policemen were being held as bargaining chips.

The rising violence since November knocked some 25 percent off the value of the stock market and left aid workers working on post-tsunami relief projects fearing they might have to pull out.

Solheim said the agreement for February talks in Geneva could be a turning point. But he added that while President Mahinda Rajapakse and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran were both keen on peace, neither appeared keen on giving up stated goals.

"It's definitely important -- a clear positive step forward, but only one step," an exhausted Solheim told Reuters in an interview in the early hours of Thursday.

But he added: "There is real enthusiasm for peace but possibly not real enthusiasm for the necessary compromises."

Colombo's stock exchange closed a provisional 7.5 percent up on the day, with traders saying they were thrilled to avoid a war that could have seen suicide bombings in the capital. But some diplomats were less optimistic on lasting peace.

"We're no better off now than we were when the ceasefire was signed," one envoy said. "What's the best we can hope for? Probably some form of the status quo. I really don't see how the two sides can come together."