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Sri Lanka Battle Rages Despite Cease-Fire


In Eastern Sri Lanka, government forces are exchanging artillery fire with guerrillas from the Tamil Tiger separatist group, in the eighth day of fighting that began as a dispute over an irrigation channel. Despite violence that has claimed nearly 100 lives in recent days, the government says the fighting does not signal a return to all-out war.

The Tamil Tigers say they overran four military outposts in the eastern district of Trincomalee in heavy fighting. Sri Lankan military officials confirm exchanges of artillery and mortar fire around those bases, but they say the rebels have made no territorial gains.

It is the eighth straight day of fighting in Eastern Sri Lanka, which some observers say amounts to a return to low-intensity civil war. The military announced that more than 40 rebels were killed in Wednesday's fighting.

Analysts say the fighting threatens to destroy what little remains of a tattered cease-fire signed by the government and the rebels in 2002.

Palitha Kohona, the secretary-general of the government's Peace Secretariat, disagrees.

"I would not say that this is war," he said. "The situation is tense. But we all hope that the two sides will return to the negotiating table and comply with the cease-fire agreement."

The government began launching air strikes on the eastern region last week, when officials say local rebel commanders refused to reopen a waterway that provides irrigation for government-held land.

Kohona says the government had to act for humanitarian reasons.

"The current tensions arose when the eastern [rebel] leaders took steps to cut off the water supply to 30,000 acres of paddy land," he said. "These 30,000 acres also support a community of 50,000 people. As you very well know, without water, rice paddies die."

At least 850 people have died this year in sporadic clashes, as a cease-fire meant to bring an end to two decades of fighting has steadily unraveled. The rebels are fighting for a separate homeland for the minority Tamils, who, they say, are oppressed by the Sinhalese majority.

A senior envoy from Norway, which mediated the cease-fire agreement, is expected in Sri Lanka later this week to try to reopen the peace talks.