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Sri Lankan Navy, Rebels Fight Sea Battle

Sri Lanka continues its slide towards all-out civil war, despite a nominal cease-fire between the government and the Tamil Tiger Rebels. At least 25 rebels and six sailors have been killed in a sea battle, with several vessels on both sides reportedly sunk or damaged.

The clash between Tamil rebels and government forces erupted after dawn Saturday off the coast of Mannar in the northwest.

Defense officials say about a dozen rebel boats attacked a small navy base. They say most of the boats were destroyed by air strikes, and three navy boats were damaged.

Both sides accused each other of hitting a church in Mannar where civilians had taken shelter. The rebels said dozens of civilians were wounded when troops shelled the church. Defense officials said the rebels lobbed grenades into the building.

The hostilities have intensified since the rebels, also known as the LTTE, refused to attend peace talks scheduled in Norway earlier this month.

Rohan Edresinghe at the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo says most people were expecting fighting to intensify after the failure of the talks.

"It seems as if the hardliners on both sides, within the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, they are dominating the strategies of their respective sides," said Edresinghe. "One can only hope that the conflict will be brief."

Saturday's sea clash took place after two days of government air strikes against rebel targets. The bombing was in retaliation for a suspected rebel attack that killed 64 people in a school bus on Thursday.

It was the deadliest incident since the government and the rebels signed a cease-fire agreement in 2002.

Although the truce is holding in name, violence has been spiraling in recent months. Suspected attacks by the rebels and killings of Tamils blamed on the army have claimed more than 700 lives since December. So far, most of the attacks have been confined to the North and the East, where the rebels control territory.

Despite the recent escalation in hostilities, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said Friday he supports a peaceful settlement to the conflict. The rebels say the recent air strikes indicate the government is ready for war.

The rebels had fought a two-decade-long battle for a homeland for the country's Tamil minority community before the 2002 truce halted the fighting. But the two sides have been unable to make much headway in negotiating a solution to the conflict in the last four years.