Sri Lankan peace talks in doubt


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Tamil Tiger rebel commanders on Saturday canceled a trip to an internal meeting that they had insisted was crucial for upcoming peace talks in Switzerland, saying they felt threatened by the presence of a naval ship.

Also Saturday, a mine blast blamed on the rebels killed four government soldiers and wounded seven others, police said.

The commanders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam aborted the trip to the meeting in the northern rebel-stronghold of Kilinochchi because they felt threatened by the approaching navy vessel, according to rebel statement. The eight-day meeting was scheduled to start Saturday.

A naval official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the ship had been present to ensure the safety of the rebels.

The Sri Lankan government and the rebels had postponed peace talks in Geneva so the guerrilla commanders could attend their meeting.

The rebels did not say if their internal meeting would be rescheduled or if they still intended to attend the peace talks, now scheduled for April 24-25.

A spokeswoman for European cease-fire monitors questioned the rebels’ claim that they felt threatened, saying the monitors had been on board the naval ship.

The rebel leaders “were getting onboard the ferry and suddenly they said they will not go because a Sri Lankan navy vessel was coming too close,” said Helen Olafsdottir. “We are not buying that because there was no risk as our monitors were abroad the naval vessel to ensure that nothing happens.”

The aborted meeting capped a week of violence – blamed on the rebels and fighting between the Tamils and the Sinhalese – that killed at least 45 people.

The bloodshed, some of the worst since a February 2002 cease-fire between the government and Tamil rebels, has raised fears the nation will slide back into civil war.

On Saturday, a Claymore mine planted on a tractor exploded as a bus carrying army soldiers approached the town of Vavuniya, said area police chief Gamini Silva, who blamed the rebels for the attack. Four soldiers were killed and seven were wounded.

Police lifted a curfew in the northeastern town of Trincomalee on Saturday after a night of calm. Senior Superintendent of Police Nimal Samarakoon said the situation in Trincomalee was under control but police were keeping a “close watch” on the town.

The rebels want to carve out a separate homeland for the country’s 3.2 million minority ethnic Tamils, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.

AP-ES-04-15-06 0739EDT