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New Rebel Attack on Sri Lankan Military Heightens Fears of War


In Sri Lanka, at least 13 sailors have been killed in an attack on a naval vessel by suspected ethnic Tamil rebels.

Sri Lankan officials say rebels rammed an explosive filled fishing boat into a naval patrol boat soon after it left Trincomalee harbor in the northeast of the country on Saturday.

Most of the sailors on board were killed, and only two were rescued. A navy spokesman says the military suspects that the rebels - known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the Tamil Tigers - mounted a suicide attack.

The Tamil Tigers carried out dozens of similar attacks before a ceasefire came into effect four years ago.

That ceasefire has become increasingly shaky since December, when a wave of bloody attacks - widely believed to have been carried out by the rebels - began. Several dozen members of the military have been killed, including those in the Saturday incident.

The new round of violence erupted soon after the election of hard-line president Mahinda Rajapakse, who announced that he could not agree to the rebels' core demand - an autonomous homeland for the minority Tamil community in the north and the east of the country.

However, the government has also says it does not want a resumption of war, and has been lobbying the international community for help in restarting stalled peace negotiations.

On Friday, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said in Washington that "war is not an option."

But Jehan Perera, who heads the Colombo-based National Peace Council, says the government is not doing enough to explore political solutions with the rebels, also known by their initials, the LTTE.

"The government itself has not apparently made up its mind about what it should do, what it should offer," he said. "After all, this is a government that won the last election on a very nationalist platform. The government has been toning down its nationalism, but still not enough to go to the extent of offering the LTTE positive incentives."

The international community has stepped up efforts to avert a slide back to conflict, following warnings by Norwegian truce monitors that "war may not be far away."

In recent weeks, both sides have said they are willing to talk, but have been unable to agree on a venue.

A Norwegian peace envoy is due to arrive in Colombo later this month in an attempt to break the deadlock over where talks should be held. U.S. officials say Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns also plans to visit Colombo to encourage negotiations between the two sides.

But in Sri Lanka, the news of the latest attack raised fears that the four-year cease-fire may be collapsing. A decade ago, a similar attack triggered full-scale hostilities, ending a brief truce.

The Tamil Tigers launched their struggle for an independent homeland for the minority Tamil community in 1983, complaining of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.

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