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Violence Spirals in Sri Lanka as Tamil Rebels Clash with Navy

  • Anjana Pasricha

The situation in Sri Lanka continues to worsen, with Tamil Tiger rebels and the navy clashing on land and at sea. The Indian and Sri Lankan governments have meanwhile dismissed a rebel spokesman's expression of "regret" over the 1991 assassination of a former Indian prime minister.

Officials in Colombo say several rebel boats attacked navy patrol craft near a small base along the West coast Wednesday, prompting the navy and air force to open fire. Both rebels and sailors were reported killed and wounded in the clash.

In the north of the country, the army said at least one soldier was killed and several civilians were wounded when rebels attacked an army camp.

Jehan Perera, head of Colombo's National Peace Council, says the rising violence has prompted the perception that the country's four-year-old truce now exists in name only.

"Given the violations of the cease-fire that are taking place every day and the disrespect for human life, we can say we are not in peace anymore, we are in a war, [although] not really in a fully-fledged war where there is a contest for territory," said Perera.

Wednesday's violence comes two days after a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated a top army general, Parami Kulatunga.

During their two-decade-long campaign for an autonomous homeland for the minority Tamil community, the rebels have carried out several high-profile suicide killings, including that of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

The rebels routinely deny responsibility for these killings. But in an unusual statement on Tuesday to an Indian news channel, rebel spokesman Anton Balasingam, expressed "regret" over Mr. Gandhi's assassination. He called the killing of the Indian leader a "monumental historical tragedy," and called on the Indian government to be "magnanimous" and forgive the act.

India's junior foreign minister, Anand Sharma, rejected the statement. Sharma said the Tamil Tigers still believe in the politics of terror and violence. He said the ethnic conflict could not be resolved through assassinations and military conflict, and urged the rebels to return to negotiations with the government.

In the Sri Lankan capital, a government spokesman also called the rebel statement "meaningless," because it stopped short of accepting responsibility for the killing. The government spokesman demanded that the rebels issue a proper apology to India.

Perera says the expression of regret by the rebels, also known as the LTTE, may be linked to their increased international isolation after they were labeled a terrorist group by the European Union and Canada.

"It could be the LTTE which is now feeling very isolated in the world is seeking to rebuild its relationship wherever it can, and it is generally believed in Sri Lanka that India is of utmost importance in achieving a solution," said Perera.

Rebel spokesman Balasingham appealed to the Indian government to take an active role in resolving the conflict, which was triggered by complaints of discrimination against the minority Tamils, who originated in India.

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