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Sri Lanka Stops Air Strikes as Mediators Try to Save Truce

  • Anjana Pasricha

In Sri Lanka, the military has stopped air strikes that pounded Tamil rebel bases for the past two days as European peace monitors continued efforts to save the country's four-year truce. But tensions still run high, with reports of mine blasts and violent incidents. The rebels say tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the bombing, while the government blames the rebels for more violence.

The Defense Ministry says it suspended bombing and shelling Tamil Tiger rebel targets, two days after a deadly suicide bombing blamed on the rebels triggered the army action.

An army spokesman, Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe, said there was sporadic violence as mines set by suspected rebels hit security forces in the north. But he said these would not provoke more air attacks.

"No air strikes today. The air strikes have ceased," he said. "It was a deterrent attack actually. Today there are two incidents, and two sailors were killed and three policemen were injured."

Tamil Tiger rebels say nearly 40,000 people have fled the bombing, which began Tuesday in retaliation for a suicide attack that critically wounded the country's army chief. Aid workers say thousands have fled the area, although it is difficult to estimate the exact number.

The Tamil Tigers accuse the government of "terrorizing" the minority Tamil population and have expressed concern that the international community did not condemn the bombing.

The army has reopened a main highway linking the south to the rebel-held areas in the north. The northern peninsula had been hit by a shortage of fuel when the military closed the road after it began bombing rebel bases.

As a measure of calm returned, European peace monitors expressed hope that they will be able to save the 2002 truce that had halted the ethnic conflict for nearly four years.

In Norway, which has been the major mediator in the peace process, top envoy Erik Solheim, said he did not believe the latest violence signaled an end to the cease-fire.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for an autonomous homeland in the north and east for the minority Tamil community since 1983. The peace process has made little headway for the past three years, but the recent violence poses the greatest challenge to keeping the truce intact.

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