Thousands flee as air force attacks Sri Lankan rebels

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Fears of a return to civil war in Sri Lanka have grown after a second day of air strikes against Tamil Tiger rebels. Thousands of people were reported to be fleeing the area around the port city of Trincomalee as government forces shelled Tiger positions.

The violence comes after the attempted assassination of the Sri Lankan army chief, Lt-Gen Sarath Fonseka, by a female suicide bomber on Tuesday, an attack that has been blamed on the Tigers, although they deny responsibility.

"It is like a war situation. If the attacks continue, the Tigers will be forced to take military defensive action," warned a spokesman for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

At least 15 people have been killed in the air strikes, and many more may be trapped in the rubble of bombed buildings, according to the Tamil Tigers. The government says three civilians have been killed in Tiger mortar attacks on government-held areas.

The ceasefire agreed in 2002 appeared to be collapsing yesterday. The head of the European monitoring mission, Maj-Gen Ulf Henricsson, warned that the escalating violence could lead to a return to war. "I think the parties are not prepared for that," he said. "And if they were, it would be devastating for the people of Sri Lanka and for their own military capabilities."

The past two days have seen the most serious military action since the ceasefire began. At least eight people were killed by the suicide bombing at the army headquarters in Colombo, which the military said was carried out by a woman.

A group calling itself the High Security Zone Residents' Liberation Force claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a statement it "feels that the LTTE is merely wasting time by maintaining a ceasefire". However, the group is widely believed in Sri Lanka to be a front for the Tigers.

An army spokesman said the air and artillery strikes yesterday were in retaliation for Tamil Tiger attacks on Sri Lankan naval craft near Trincomalee.

The Tigers have fought a two-decade war for autonomy for ethnic Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka, saying they are discriminated against by the Sinhalese majority.

The ceasefire has been unravelling for months, with a series of attacks on security forces blamed on the Tigers. At least 100 people have died in violent clashes between the groups over the past two weeks.

Peace talks planned for this week in Geneva were hoped to defuse the tension, but the Tigers pulled out last week accusing the government of blocking the travel of some of its leaders.