Suspected Tamil Tiger rebels ambushed and killed three soldiers in Sri Lanka's restive east yesterday, just as a Norwegian peace broker flew in to begin a last-ditch peace bid to avert a slide back into civil war.
The patrol was ambushed with a deadly claymore fragmentation mine, a block of plastic explosive which blasts out ball bearings. It was the latest in a string of attacks that have killed over 70 armed forces personnel since December.
The attack came just hours after peace envoy Erik Solheim touched down in Sri Lanka for a three-day visit to try to convince government and rebels to agree on a venue for talks to haul a 2002 truce back from breaking point.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was also due to visit Sri Lanka yesterday for talks with Solheim and officials.
"The patrol was attacked 5 kilometers outside Batticaloa town. The Tigers were responsible. Who else?," said Rohan Abeywardene, deputy inspector general of police for the eastern districts of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have threatened to resume their armed struggle this year unless new President Mahinda Rajapakse gives them a separate Tamil homeland, which he has refused to do.
Some diplomats and analysts fear any talks could be doomed.
"People are really angry and frustrated with the Sri Lankan government ... who are using the military as an iron fist to suppress their democratic rights and aspirations," S. Puleedevan, head of the rebels' Peace Secretariat, told Reuters by telephone from the Tigers' northern stronghold.
"If the Sri Lankan government and southern Sinhalese fail to realize the concerns of the Tamil population, then it will be very difficult for them to go on like this," he added. "The people are ready to move this freedom struggle forward all over the northeast."
The rebels say they are ready to use suicide bombers if war resumes, and the army is preparing for the worst. Analysts say both sides are already engaged in an undeclared war.
The Tigers demand wide autonomy in the north and east, where they already run a de facto state with their own law courts, tax system and speedgun-toting traffic police, and say any talks must be held in Oslo and focus on confidence-building measures.
The government has so far ruled out Oslo, and has reached consensus with the island's other political parties that talks should focus on tightening the current terms of the truce, which the Tigers say is a non-starter.
With hundreds of thousands still displaced by years of war, renewed fighting would hamstring the US$20 billion economy and force thousands more displaced by Asia's tsunami to flee homes they are only just starting to rebuild.
More than 100 people have been killed since December, hammering the stock market and raising fears of a resumption of a two-decade war that has already killed more than 64,000.
But investors and traders are far more hopeful than some analysts that war can be avoided, and the bourse ignored yesterday's attack, gaining over 1.0 percent in early trade.
"Investors and the public expect a positive outcome from Solheim's visit," said Harsha Fernando, chief executive of brokerage SC Securities.
Violence escalated after the Tigers helped scupper the chances of a candidate at November's presidential election who was seen as best placed to reach a peace deal.
Analysts said the move showed the rebels were not ready to talk peace and have used the truce to regroup and rearm.
The Tigers accuse the military and paramilitaries of a litany of abuses, including rape and executions of Tamil civilians and rebels. They list the killings on their Web site, www.ltteps.org.
Norway, which was invited to mediate in the conflict because of its experience in Middle East peace efforts and its perceived neutrality, has sought to play down hopes of a breakthrough, mindful of squandered past opportunities.