/ 17 January 2006

Mine blasts rock Sri Lanka amid fresh bid to save truce

Suspected Tiger rebels set off two more mines and fought a gun battle with troops on Tuesday as the United Nations urged talks and Norway made a fresh bid to pull Sri Lanka back from the brink of war.

Military officials said members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ambushed a navy bus by setting off a landmine in the restive northeast port district of Trincomalee, leaving 10 sailors wounded.

The explosive device rigged up to a bicycle went off as the bus passed by, a military official said, adding that the vehicle escaped the full impact.

He said the guerrillas immediately opened fire at the bus and sailors retaliated, killing at least two of their attackers. A civilian was wounded in the crossfire.

“When the Claymore mine narrowly missed the bus, there was a hail of bullets from the side of the road,” the official told Agence France-Presse. “Out of the sailors injured, one is in a critical condition and has been sent to Colombo for treatment.”

He said troops searched the area and found the bodies of two rebels. In another mine attack in the northern peninsula of Jaffna, a soldier was killed and nine were wounded on Tuesday afternoon, the military said.

Another soldier was killed in a grenade attack on Monday night in the northwestern region of Mannar, the military said, adding that a suspect was arrested.

The violence came as the UN urged Colombo and Tigers to resume stalled talks and said a return to war was not the answer. The conflict between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils has claimed over 60 000 lives since 1972.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed concern for the Norwegian-backed peace bid where at least 136 people, including 79 security personnel, have been killed in an upsurge in violence since December.

“The Secretary General stresses that a return to conflict will not resolve outstanding differences between the parties,” his office said in a statement.

Norway sent its ambassador here, Hans Brattskar, to the rebel-held town of Kilinochchi on Tuesday for talks with the LTTE leadership on salvaging a ceasefire arranged by Oslo and in place since February 2002.

Brattskar was accompanied by members of the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which also suffered a bomb attack last week.

The pro-rebel Tamilnet website said the Tigers were due to take up, among other things, the issue of disarming members of a breakaway rebel faction allegedly backed by Colombo, de-escalation of violence and harassment by security forces.

Proceedings in the national Parliament were disrupted following protests by Tamil legislators over alleged military excesses in the Jaffna peninsula.

The LTTE said in a statement that seven Tamil civilians had been killed on Sunday in separate incidents in Jaffna.

“Incidents of mindless targeted murders of Tamil civilians by paramilitaries assisted by the Sri Lankan army are on the increase in Jaffna,” the statement said.

Diplomatic sources said Brattskar was expected to lay the ground for a visit early next week by Norway’s International Development Minister Erik Solheim, who will try to jumpstart peace talks that have been on hold since April 2003.

Sources close to the peace process and defence sources say they fear more attacks in the run-up to Solheim’s visit as the Tigers try to collect bargaining chips by scoring more hits on the security forces. – AFP