Heavy fighting forces out Sri Lanka ceasefire monitors

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Thousands are fleeing their homes as fighting intensifies in Sri Lanka between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels.

European ceasefire monitors were also pulling out after the Tigers refused to guarantee their safety. In a remarkable counter-offensive, Tiger guerrillas burst past troops who have been trying to fight their way into rebel-held territory for two days, and last night appeared to be close to taking control of Muttur, a key strategic town. Residents of Muttur, which is predominantly Muslim, fled. Many sheltered in mosques or schools. Muslims support neither side.

Mortars fell outside two hospitals yesterday, wounding medical staff. And according to reports from inside Tiger territory, artillery fire hit a Roman Catholic church, killing an eight-year-old boy. The 2002 ceasefire now lies in tatters.

Muttur lies directly across the bay from Trincomalee, the best deep-water naval port in south Asia, a stone's throw from India. It is Sri Lanka's finest strategic asset, and the conflict's greatest prize. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been fighting for two decades for a homeland for Tamils in the north and east.

Both sides insisted they were only acting in "self-defence". But the head of the Scandinavian monitoring mission, Ulf Henricsson, was blunt. "In reality, there is no ceasefire in Trincomalee," he said.

Heavy fighting began when Sri Lanka launched a ground offensive against Tiger-held territory near Trincomalee.Analysts agree that several months of Tiger attacks were designed to force the government to the brink of war.