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Tamil Rebels Pull Out of Sri Lanka Peace Talks

In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels have pulled out of peace talks, aimed at saving the country's four-year-old military truce. The decision has raised fears that spiraling ethnic violence will intensify.

The top Norwegian peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Jon Hanssen-Bauer, traveled Thursday to the rebel-held north of the country, in a last-ditch bid to secure the rebels' participation in a second round of talks with the government.

But the rebels told the envoy the talks were off indefinitely, due to a surge in violence in the areas where the Tamils are in the majority. The rebels accused the government of creating a war-like situation, and said they would not take part in talks, until "normality" returns to the north and east.

The second round, already postponed once, was due to be held April 24 and 25 in Geneva. But the talks began looking increasingly unlikely, after a fresh wave of violence swept through Tamil areas in the last two weeks.

More than 70 people have died from a combination of attacks on government troops, ethnic riots and politically motivated murders. The government blames the Tamil Tigers for the attacks on the troops, while the rebels say armed groups affiliated with the government are attacking their supporters.

Jehan Perera, who heads Colombo's National Peace Council, warns that the situation is likely to deteriorate in the coming days.

"It is more than volatile. I think, we are right at the precipice, and it is just a matter of time, if we continue in this way, that we plunge into full-scale war," said Perera.

The attacks continued unabated on Thursday. In two separate incidents, the army said it shot dead a Tamil guerrilla trying to attack a government position, and a member of an anti-Tamil Tiger political group was killed in the east.

Analysts say the Tamil rebels pulled out of the talks because the government failed to meet a key demand made at an earlier round - the disarming of a rebel splinter group.

Norwegian mediators and diplomats were hoping the Geneva talks would help save a peace process that had raised hopes of ending a two-decade-long ethnic conflict. The rebels have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the country.

The negotiations made headway initially, with the rebels agreeing to settle for autonomy, instead of independence. But, in the last three years, the peace process has been bogged down by a series of disputes between the two sides.