Sri Lanka's ceasefire is over, say Tamil Tigers

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Heavy fighting was under way in Sri Lanka yesterday after the government launched a ground offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels. As troops advanced into their territory, the Tigers said a four-year-old ceasefire was over and the civil war was back on.

At least 39 Tiger guerrillas and seven government soldiers were killed in intense ground battles yesterday, according to the Sri Lankan military, although the Tigers claimed they had lost only three men.

Government forces are advancing into Tiger-held enclaves near the port city of Trincomalee, in the north east. It is the first serious ground fighting since the 2002 ceasefire, under which neither side is allowed to enter the other's territory. The Tigers said the offensive amounted to a "declaration of war".

"The ceasefire agreement has become null and void at the moment," S Elilan, a senior figure in the political wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam said. "The war is on and we are ready. The war has begun. It is the government which has started the war." But the offensive follows months of attacks blamed on the Tigers, which diplomats and analysts agree have been a clear attempt by the Tigers to push the government to the brink of war.

Last night, a roadside bomb exploded near a military truck in Kantale, in Trincomalee, killing 18 soldiers, the military said.

The government appears to be taking advantage of the fact that the world media's attention is focused on Lebanon to carry out its offensive almost unnoticed. The ground operation began on Sunday, after four days of air strikes that went largely unreported.

"In reality, there is no ceasefire but on paper it is still there," said the head of a Nordic ceasefire monitoring mission, retired Swedish general Ulf Henriccson. "At the moment none of the parties are interested in talks ... a full-scale war will be a disaster."

The government denies it is restarting the war and says it is carrying out a limited operation to reopen a canal the Tigers have blocked which carries vital water supplies to farmers in the area under its control. The rebels earlier this month shut a reservoir sluice gate in an area under their control in eastern Trincomalee district, cutting water to 60,000 people living in villages in nearby government-controlled territory. They said it was in retaliation for the government's reneging on a promise to build a water tower for adjacent rebel-held areas.

The area where the government has attacked is close to major Tiger military bases, and a Tiger airstrip was destroyed in the air strikes - suggesting that the government is attempting to degrade its enemy militarily.

"There is a big chance that if they get to the sluice gate, it will be blown up," said Major General Henriccson, adding that the attack was "overkill" and the wrong method to get water, if that was the main issue.

The rebels, angry at President Mahinda Rajapakse's outright rejection of their demand for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in the north and east, have pulled out of peace talks indefinitely and have been cranking up the rhetoric for months. A return to war would be disastrous for Sri Lanka. At least 64,000 people are believed to have died in the two decades of civil war. "This is a new development, as earlier fighting was more in the nature of hit-and-run operations," said Jehan Perera, an analyst at the independent National Peace Council.

"The country is entering a deeper state of conflict," he told Associated Press.