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Diplomats Try to Save Sri Lanka's Unraveling Cease-Fire


Top U.S. and Norwegian officials are in Sri Lanka as part of a diplomatic offensive to save the country's three-year-old ceasefire from unraveling completely. But even as U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and Norwegian peace mediator Erik Solheim were conferring in the Sri Lankan capital, violence was continuing in the country's north.

A landmine killed three Sri Lankan soldiers Monday as they patrolled a highway outside the northeastern city of Batticaloa. Sri Lankan officials again blamed members of the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group.

It was the latest in a series of violent incidents that have raised fears of a collapse of the three-year-old ceasefire between the government and the rebels - and a return to all-out war. It was these same incidents, which began late last year, that prompted this week's visits by senior U.S. and Norwegian officials.

Norwegian peace mediator Erik Solheim and U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns met in Colombo Monday, in addition to holding individual meetings with Sri Lankan officials.

Speaking in the Indian capital, New Delhi, before his one-day visit to Sri Lanka, Mr. Burns said the United States is concerned about the breakdown of the ceasefire.

"I will certainly be meeting with the Sri Lankan government, meeting with Norwegian colleagues as well, to try to make sure that we're standing on the side of preservation of the ceasefire, and of peace, and of the peaceful resolution of disputes there," Mr. Burns says.

Mr. Solheim helped broker the 2002 ceasefire between the government and the rebels, who had waged a violent 20-year campaign on behalf of the country's ethnic Tamil minority. More than 65 thousand people have died in the conflict.

As part of the peace agreement, the rebels dropped their demand for independence for the predominantly Tamil areas in Sri Lanka's north and east, in exchange for greater autonomy. But the two sides have not met face to face in more than three years.

Lingering distrust between the rebels and the government was exacerbated last year, when Mahinda Rajapakse was elected president, and vowed to rewrite the peace agreement.

Mr. Solheim's three-day visit includes a planned meeting Wednesday with Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the elusive leader of the Tamil Tigers, in the rebel-held city of Kilinochchi.

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