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Renewed Fighting Erupts in Sri Lanka Ahead of Peace Talks


New fighting has erupted in Sri Lanka between government forces and the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels before peace talks scheduled for the end of the month. The decision to hold talks had raised hopes of ending weeks of spiraling violence in the country.

Sri Lankan officials say fighter jets bombed rebel positions in the northern Jaffna peninsula in response to efforts by the Tamil rebels to infiltrate government-held areas.

The Tamil rebels accuse the military of staging a "full-scale offensive" by firing heavy artillery and rockets on territory they control.

The fighting erupted less than a week after the two sides agreed to hold peace talks at the end of the month in Switzerland. The decision had raised hopes of ending some of the worst violence the country has seen since the two sides agreed to a truce in 2002.

Hundreds of people on both sides have been killed since July when violence began to escalate.

The rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and also known as the L.T.T.E, warned Tuesday that they would reconsider their decision to negotiate, if the military attacks continue.

But the government says it remains fully committed to the peace talks.

Palitha Kohona, head of the government Peace Secretariat in Colombo dismissed fears that the renewed fighting will derail the negotiations.

"I think the peace talks are on track and should be on track for a very good reason - the country needs peace and does not need violence, and we hope that the L.T.T.E. recognizes that and decides to return to the negotiating table," he said.

Wednesday's fighting erupted just a day after Norway, which arranged the talks between the two sides, called on them to use "this opportunity to cease hostilities."

Analysts say the continuing fighting could be an effort by the government to weaken the rebels as much as possible before the talks.

"The government is actually preferring at this time to deal with the L.T.T.E. through military means," saiid Jehan Perera, head of the National Peace Council, a peace advocacy group in Colombo. "Because the government has the advantage ... they are able to cause a lot of damage to the L.T.T.E. infrastructure and to L.T.T.E. personnel at relatively little cost to the government and the L.T.T.E. seems to be offering the government reasons to continue their military approach."

The government has said it wants the new round of talks to focus on "substantive issues" and finding a long-term solution to the conflict that has divided Sri Lanka since 1983, when rebels began fighting for an autonomous homeland for the Tamil minority community.

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