- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2006

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Government officials declared yesterday they were ready to hold peace talks, a move promptly dismissed by Tamil Tiger rebels as soldiers and insurgents traded artillery and mortar fire in northern Sri Lanka.

With the latest attempt to resume peace negotiations stumbling, Sri Lanka appears as close to falling into full-scale civil war as it has since a 2002 cease-fire ended widespread fighting.

“The Sri Lankan government’s offensive attacks make peace talks and the implementation of the cease-fire agreement impossible,” Seevarathnam Puleedevan, a senior rebel official, said in a telephone interview from rebel territory.

Palitha Kohona, the chief of the Sri Lankan government’s peace secretariat, told reporters earlier yesterday that the rebels had told a Nordic cease-fire monitoring mission that they wanted to renew talks.

The spokesman for the Nordic mission, Thorfinnur Omarsson, confirmed that Mr. Puleedevan made a verbal request for renewed talks and said the Tigers would follow up with a formal, written offer. But Mr. Puleedevan denied making any overtures.

He told the Associated Press that he talked to the monitors about the “Sri Lankan government’s duplicity after they undermined our goodwill gestures.”

The 2002 cease-fire was intended to halt more than two decades of bloodshed between the government, dominated by Sri Lanka’s 14 million Sinhalese, and the rebels, who have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for Tamils in the north and east.

The latest round of fighting began in late July over a rebel-controlled water supply near the eastern port of Trincomalee, and in recent days has spread to other parts of the east and to the northern Jaffna Peninsula, the heartland of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority.

Tigers and government forces exchanged artillery fire yesterday near two key entry points to the peninsula. Thousands of civilians were reported trapped by the weekend’s battles on the peninsula, which is closed to outsiders because of the fighting.

Both sides blame each other for the clashes, and Mr. Puleedevan insisted that the government must stop attacks and allow an estimated 50,000 displaced people to return home.

No casualties were reported from yesterday’s fighting.

The government said Saturday it had killed more than 200 rebels and lost 27 soldiers in that day’s fighting. The rebels gave no word about casualties.

Also yesterday, two suspected Tiger suicide bombers were detained in Colombo. One killed himself by swallowing cyanide, and the other was rushed to a hospital after trying to do the same.

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