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Fighting subsides in Sri Lanka's volatile northeast

The region is calm as a Japanese envoy is set to arrive in Colombo on Sunday for a five-day visit to try to strengthen peace efforts.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2006 12:42 IST
Bharatha Mallawarachi (AP)
Bharatha Mallawarachi (AP)

Tamil Tiger rebels fired artillery at government troops in northern Sri Lanka on Saturday, but the volatile region was relatively calm, the military said, as a special Japanese envoy prepared to visit the island to boost peace efforts.

Military spokesman Brig Prasad Samarasinghe said the rebels were firing artillery "on and off" into government-controlled areas on the Jaffna Peninsula, although there were no reports of major clashes.

Heavy fighting in the besieged region on Wednesday left hundreds of combatants dead in some of the bloodiest clashes since the two sides signed a 2002 ceasefire accord.

The military controls almost whole of the peninsula, which the rebels claim as the cultural heart of the country's ethnic Tamil minority, but small pockets are held by the separatists.

The military said 130 soldiers and 196 rebels died in the battles, while the rebels claimed as many as 200 government troops were killed, along with 22 insurgents.

The rebels also captured one soldier, and the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had visited him in a hospital.

The rebels have handed over the bodies of 75 soldiers to the army through the ICRC.

The battle on Wednesday came after Tiger political chief Suppiah Thamilselvan agreed on Tuesday to attend peace talks with the government, which Norwegian peace brokers said would take place in Switzerland on October 28-29.

Japanese peace envoy Yasushi Akashi was scheduled to arrive in Colombo on Sunday for a five-day visit to try to strengthen efforts to bring peace to the tropical island, according to a statement from the Japanese Embassy.

Akashi is to hold talks separately with government and rebel officials.

The government said Thursday it remains committed to the scheduled talks despite the continued fighting, while the United States said it was "deeply concerned" by the continuing unrest.

About 2,000 people have died in fighting this year, according to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which was set up to oversee the ceasefire.

The government routinely maintains that its military operations are defensive and do not violate the ceasefire.

The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority in the north and east, citing decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.

About 65,000 people were killed before the 2002 ceasefire.

First Published: Oct 14, 2006 12:42 IST