Sri Lanka bomb attack fuels fear of return to civil war

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The Independent Online

Eight Sri Lankan sailors have been killed in an attack by suspected Tamil Tiger rebels as fears grow that the country is slipping back towards civil war.

At least 69 military personnel have been killed in attacks blamed on the Tigers since December, and yesterday's was the second to target the Sri Lankan navy within a week. The European Union has called for new peace talks, warning of "massive human suffering" if attempts to avert a return to war fail.

The EU said in a statement issued in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo: "It is imperative that the government, other political parties and the Tamil Tigers heed the call of the people and join hands to arrest the spread of violence."

The sailors were in a military convoy when their bus was hit by a claymore mine planted on their route. Claymores are primarily anti-personnel weapons, usually detonated by command-wire and designed to cause maximum casualties; they contain hundreds of tiny steel balls propelled out in a fan by plastic explosive.

The Tamil Tigers did not comment on the bombing, near Vavuniya town in a government-controlled area of northern Sri Lanka, but they have denied involvement in a series of recent attacks.

On Saturday, 13 Sri Lankan sailors died when suspected suicide bombers rammed their naval vessel in a small boat packed with explosives. The Tigers pioneered the tactic of suicide bombing long before the rise of al-Qa'ida.

At least 64,000 people are believed to have been killed in Sri Lanka's civil war, which lasted two decades before a ceasefire was agreed in 2002. But peace talks between the government and the Tigers have long broken down, and many fear the ceasefire is collapsing.

There are almost daily attacks on government forces, and there have been six major incidents since December. The Tigers' supporters say that at least 40 Tamils have been killed in attacks by security forces over the same time period. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) want to establish an independent homeland for ethnic Tamils in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, claiming they face repression under the rule of the Sinhalese majority. In recent years they have reduced their demands to some form of autonomy.

After the 2002 ceasefire, the rebels were left in control of small, mostly rural enclaves in the north and east.

In presidential elections last November, the Tigers played what many observers believe was a decisive part when they forcibly prevented people in the areas they control from voting. The election was a close contest between the former prime minister who negotiated the ceasefire and a hardliner who refuses to consider any of the Tigers' demands.

Observers believe that by preventing polls in their areas, where most voters were supporters of the peace candidate, the Tigers in effect handed the election to the hardliner, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Since President Rajapaksa took office, there has been a marked rise in violence.

Some analysts have suggested the Tigers wanted a hardline president so they would not be blamed for the collapse of the peace process.

Jeffrey Lunstead, the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, said yesterday that if "the LTTE chooses to abandon peace... we want it to be clear, they will face a stronger, more capable and more determined Sri Lankan military". His remark appeared to hint that America may try to strengthen Sri Lankan government forces.