Sri Lankan combat kills 20 civilians

Clash of government and rebel forces suggests resumption of long-standing civil war


NEW DELHI, India -- Edging closer toward all-out war, Sri Lankan soldiers and Tamil Tiger rebels traded fierce gunfire and artillery strikes yesterday, killing 20 civilians and injuring dozens of others who had sought shelter inside a mosque and a school.

The battle for the town of Muttur, in northeastern Sri Lanka, witnessed some of the fiercest clashes between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam since ground battles erupted last week.

Both sides claim to have killed scores of enemy combatants since the resurgence of fighting.

The heavy bloodshed yesterday underlined the fact that the cease-fire accord in the 23-year conflict, signed in 2002, is essentially defunct.

Although both government and rebel leaders continue to insist that the agreement holds, diplomats and analysts say that the island nation's civil war has resumed in all but name.

Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict since hostilities flared in December. More than 800 have died, caught in the crossfire of near-daily attacks and reprisals between the Sri Lankan military and guerrilla fighters.

Those killed yesterday had fled their homes for the presumed safety of a mosque and a Muslim school in and around Muttur, a town just south of the strategic port city of Trincomalee.

An artillery shell hit the school in the morning, while another punched through the mosque in the afternoon, killing 20 and wounding about 40 more, hospital officials said.

Both sides blamed each other for the deadly strikes.

The Sri Lankan government says that its forces have killed about 70 Tamil Tiger fighters in the past few days. The rebels deny that figure and claim instead to have killed 40 army soldiers, which the Sri Lankan military, in turn, dismisses as an exaggeration.

With clashes continuing, an independent Scandinavian monitoring team has been unable to verify the true death toll.

The Tigers, a group known for fearsome discipline and the pioneering use of suicide bombers, have battled the Sri Lankan army for decades in an attempt to carve out a homeland for the island's ethnic-minority Tamils, separate from the majority Sinhalese.

The U.S., Canada and the European Union classify the Tigers as a terrorist organization. Likewise, the Sri Lankan military has been accused by human rights groups of abuses against the Tamil population.

The civil war has cost an estimated 65,000 lives, and rebels maintain control of large swaths of the north and east.

The signing of the cease-fire pact, and the ensuing few years of fragile calm, prompted a revival of Sri Lanka's economy and the tourism upon which it relies heavily.

But advances toward a political settlement between the rebels and the government have been few, which helped trigger the resumption of violence late last year.

Neither side, however, can politically afford to declare the cease-fire dead, because no other blueprint for peace exists.

The fighting of the past week grew out of a dispute over a sluice providing water to thousands of villagers near Trincomalee.

The government accused the Tigers of blocking the conduit and moved in to wrest control of it. In the escalating violence that followed, the Sri Lankan military has sent air, naval and ground forces to pummel rebel positions.

A Norwegian envoy was expected to arrive in Colombo, the capital, today to meet with members of President Mahinda Rajapakse's government and rebel leaders to try to end the impasse and ensure "that the peace process is on track and isn't derailed," government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters.

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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