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Sri Lankan Rebels Commit Suicide After Being Caught with Illegal Weapons - 2003-02-07

In Sri Lanka, three Tamil Tiger rebels have committed suicide after cease-fire monitors caught them with illegal weapons and explosives. The incident comes as the government and rebels begin a fifth round of peace talks in Germany.

Sri Lankan officials say the incident occurred off the northern Jaffna Peninsula when Norwegian cease-fire monitors boarded a trawler for inspection.

Three Tamil rebels, caught with an anti-aircraft gun, grenades and ammunition, set the boat on fire and blew themselves up. The monitors and a translator were able to escape unharmed by jumping overboard.

The monitors say the rebel commandos were smuggling in the weapons and ammunition in breach of a ceasefire agreement signed by the two sides a year ago.

The incident is the most serious breach of the truce since peace talks began in September.

Despite this, government and rebel negotiators have exchanged handshakes, and begun their fifth round of peace talks, this time in Berlin, Germany.

Both sides are downplaying the incident, describing the cease-fire violation as a "communication failure" between guerrilla commanders and cadres in the field. They say existing procedures will be reviewed to avoid it from happening again.

The talks in Berlin are focusing on human rights issues, and the rebels' alleged recruitment of children as soldiers.

The government and the rebels will also discuss how to use millions of dollars being raised in foreign aid to rebuild war-ravaged areas.

Tamil rebels began their armed struggle for a separate homeland in 1983 and the conflict has left more than 60,000 people dead and more than a million others displaced.

Since last year's truce, the rebels have agreed to accept autonomy for Tamil-dominated areas in the east and north of the country.