Tamils turn down peace negotiations as fighting intensifies

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Sri Lanka appeared to be returning to civil war yesterday as the worst fighting in four years raged in the north, and the Tamil Tiger rebels ruled out peace talks. The weekend has seen intense fighting around the Jaffna peninsula, the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the civil war.

There were reports of serious casualties. The government claimed that 200 Tigers and 27 of its own forces were killed on Saturday alone. Although the wide discrepancy in the government's figures cast some doubt on them, the silence from the Tigers suggests they may have suffered heavy losses.

The government's decision to launch a ground offensive on Tiger positions near Trincomalee two weeks ago looks to have opened Pandora's Box. The fighting has spread dramatically and is concentr-ated around the Elephant Pass, the narrow causeway that links the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the island.

Jaffna is home to the largest Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Control of it is seen as vital both to the Tigers, who want to create an independent homeland for the Tamils, and to the government who want to keep Sri Lanka united. The Pass witnessed several bloody battles as the peninsula changed hands during the civil war, and the weekend's fighting will have raised fears of a return to those times.

The effect on the civilian population has been severe. Exact figures are disputed, but hundreds are feared to have been killed, among them 17 aid workers for the French NGO Action Contre la Faim, who were murdered in the town of Muttur. At least 50,000 people have had to flee their homes around Trincomalee alone, according to the UNHCR, and many more were fleeing the new fighting.

It was the government that began the recent fighting with a ground offensive near Trincomalee, but it appears it was the Tigers who spread the fighting to the Jaffna area, by launching an unexpected attack on government positions.

The government said it was prepared to hold peace talks yesterday, but the Tigers dismissed the idea. Even more ominously, they said the 2002 ceasefire, which is technically still in force, and which both sides earlier claimed they were still committed to, was no longer possible to maintain.

"The Sri Lankan government's attacks make peace talks and the implementation of the ceasefire agreement impossible," Seevarathnam Puleedevan, a senior figure in the Tigers, said yesterday. "The government must take the responsibility for the negative atmosphere."

The Tigers' refusal came despite confirmation from the European ceasefire monitoring team that it was the Tigers who suggested new peace talks in the first place - and that it was Mr Puleedevan himself who had conveyed the message.

"We gave a very positive answer, and we said we will start talks immediately," the head of the government's peace secretariat, Palitha Kohona, told reporters hours before the Tigers' refusal of talks.

Although the fully-fledged fighting has been confined to the north and east, the violence has not. On Saturday, the deputy head of the government peace secretariat, Kethesh Loganathan, was shot dead in the capital Colombo in an attack blamed on the Tigers.

Also yesterday, two suspected Tigers swallowed cyanide capsules after they were arrested outside a Colombo police station with a car packed with explosives. The capsules are standard issue to Tigers.