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Sri Lankan Violence Intensifies Ahead of Peace Mediator's Arrival


Violence in Sri Lanka is intensifying in advance of the arrival of a European peace negotiator. The Tamil Tiger rebels on Sunday denied involvement in a grenade attack on a compound used by European cease-fire monitors, but attacks continue, and the two sides blame each other.

Analysts say the escalation of violence may be timed to the impending arrival of Erik Solheim, Norway's chief negotiator. He is due in Sri Lanka next week to take on the formidable task of salvaging a ceasefire that exists in little more than name.

Several dozen military personnel and a number of rebels have been killed in recent weeks.

Norwegian peace mediators brokered a 2002 ceasefire between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels. But the peace process has been stalled for nearly three years. Recently, the two sides could not even agree where to meet to resume talks.

The rebels, whose full name is the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, want the talks held in Norway's capital, Oslo. The government of President Mahinda Rajapakse says the talks should be held somewhere in Asia.

Iqbal Athas, an independent defense analyst in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, says the government appears more willing than the rebels to compromise on this point.

"There have been signs that Mahindra Rajapakse is willing to concede a venue… The question now remains whether the LTTE would accept such an offer," he said. "From the pronouncements they have been making in the past few days, they are very strong in their insistence that it should be in Oslo."

Athas says the increase in violence may in part be an attempt to influence Mr. Solheim, by showing in advance of the talks what they are capable of if the talks fail.

On Sunday, a blast destroyed a car belonging to Norwegian peace monitors, in a compound housing their office in the eastern city of Batticaloa. No injuries were reported, and the rebels have denied any involvement in the incident. The rebels are also suspected of hurling a grenade at a military checkpoint Monday, wounding one person.

The rebels, meanwhile, have charged the government with killing three women living in a house whose owners are known for their pro-rebel sympathies - a charge the government denies.

Athas believes the recent spate of incidents is a sign that if the war does restart, the rebels are prepared for more than just traditional guerrilla operations.

"The last four years of the ceasefire has seen the rebels build up a much more stronger military machine, and this has also included the development of air capability, [and] the construction of a 1.4 kilometer runway in rebel-held Iranamaddu in the northern Vanni area," he said.

More than 65,000 people have died in more than two decades of fighting between the government, which is controlled by the ethnic Sinhalese majority, and the Tamil rebels. The rebels first demanded independence, and later, greater autonomy for areas in the north and east of the country where the ethnic Tamil minority is predominant.

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