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Pro-Rebel Politician Killed in Sri Lanka As More Naval Clashes Take Place

A prominent Sri Lankan Tamil politician has been gunned down in Colombo, even as more clashes were reported at sea between the navy and ethnic Tamil rebels. The dead politician, a member of a party linked to the rebels, had tried to build bridges between the country's warring ethnic groups.

Nadaraja Raviraj was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on his way to work Friday morning in the capital Colombo. He is the second lawmaker of the pro-rebel Tamil National Alliance to be assassinated since December.

The TNA, which is regarded as the parliamentary proxy of the Tamil Tiger rebels, blamed the government for the lawmaker's assassination. President Mahinda Rajapakse condemned the killing, saying it appeared to be an attempt to discredit the government.

The deputy head of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, Rohan Edresinghe, describes Raviraj as a member of parliament, who tried to act as a bridge between the minority Tamil community and the majority Sinhalese.

"One of the most moderate TNA MPs [members of parliament], an MP who was often on television explaining to the Sinhalese people, in their own language, what the concerns of the Tamil people were. The fact that he has been assassinated is causing a lot of fear, a lot of concern among people, who hope that a peaceful resolution to the conflict is still possible," he said.

The Tamil politician was assassinated as fighting escalated in the predominately Tamil north and the east of the country, where the rebels have been fighting for autonomy for two decades.

Defense officials say the navy sank two rebel boats Friday in the northeastern harbor of Trincomalee. A day earlier, the navy said it sank 22 rebel boats carrying suicide fighters who wanted to target a passenger ship in the northern Jaffna Peninsula.

The rebels say their boats were conducting exercises when they were attacked. They said they sank two naval gunboats. A number of sailors and rebels are reported to be missing or killed in the two clashes.

Tensions between the two sides have intensified since peace talks collapsed last month after months of steady deterioration.

Edresinghe says the failed talks and the resumption of fighting demonstrate that hard-line elements are in control in the government.

"The hope that the government would be emboldened to marginalize the extremist groups in alliance with them, all that seems to have receded at the present moment, given the escalation in violence," he said.

A shaky truce is still nominally in place, but there are widespread fears that the country will return to full-scale war. The ethnic conflict stems from complaints that the Tamil community has suffered discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese.