Sri Lanka denies peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels 'unconditional'
Tue September 12, 2006 12:55 EDT .
Associated Press Writer
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Sri Lanka's government Tuesday denied it had agreed to unconditional peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels, hours after international backers of the country's faltering peace process announced a possible meeting between the two sides in Norway next month.
The developments came amid heavy fighting between government troops and rebels in the island's north that killed 185 combatants in six days, the military said.
Although neither side has withdrawn from a four-year-old Norway-brokered cease-fire, weeks of escalating battles along their borders in the northeast have left the truce in tatters and threatened a resumption of a bloody civil war.
``We got today the expression of willingness, we got signals from the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), to come to talks unconditionally,'' Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner said Tuesday, on behalf of Sri Lanka's international backers _ the EU, Japan, the United States and Norway.
Provided both sides agree, she said, ``the meeting should take place urgently, at the beginning of October, in Oslo.''
But Sri Lanka's government denied it had agreed to talks without preconditions.
``We will put forward our conditions,'' government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told The Associated Press. ``I cannot tell those offhand, they need to be discussed,'' he said.
Rambukwella also criticized peace broker Norway for allegedly not having consulted the government before announcing a date and a venue.
``The government has not been consulted on any future discussions. Norway, or anybody, can't announce dates and venues,'' Rambukwella said.
``We will take it up very seriously, we are a sovereign state, they (Norway) are only facilitators. We have not delegated any of our powers to them.''
Government troops and rebels have traded artillery fire across their front lines at Muhamalai in Jaffna peninsula since Thursday and sporadic exchanges of fire continued Tuesday, military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said.
He said the fighting has killed 35 soldiers and 150 Tamil Tigers.
Tiger official Seevanatnam Puleedevan said only 12 of the group's fighters had been killed, and said the military's toll was 78.
Both sides are known to exaggerate each other's death tolls and independent confirmation of casualty claims is not possible.
Samarasinghe said troops have advanced 800 meters (half a mile) into rebel-held territory and captured the insurgents' first bunker line.
He said the Tigers had fallen back to their second line of defense about one kilometer (0.6 mile) and were firing mortars and small arms toward the army. ``We are successfully retaliating their attacks,'' he said.
Jaffna has long been a flash point for violence in Sri Lanka's 19-year war between the Sinhalese-dominated state and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who claim it as the cultural heart of the country's 3.2 million ethnic Tamil minority.
The fighting came less than a week after the army claimed to have routed the Tigers from Sampur, a rebel-held village in the northeast, their first significant territorial gain since the cease-fire.
The Tigers have threatened retaliation and a resumption of war unless the army withdraws from Sampur.
The rebels want to carve out a separate state for the country's predominantly Hindu Tamils, citing decades of discrimination by the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
The conflict _ one of Asia's longest-running _ cost the lives of about 65,000 people before the truce.
Hundreds more combatants and civilians have been killed and about 220,000 displaced since April.
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Published: Tue Sep 12 13:54:08 EDT 2006