Suspected Tamil Tiger rebels killed seven Sri Lankan soldiers in a second claymore mine attack in the island's north in three days, the military said on Yesterday, as violence straining a 2002 truce escalates.
One officer and six regular soldiers were killed in the blast in the military-held town of Jaffna, in Sri Lanka's far north, on a peninsula hemmed in by a de facto rebel state.
It followed a claymore mine blast on Sunday that killed seven soldiers, the deadliest single incident since the ceasefire, and brought the death toll in the island's north and east to at least 21 since last week.
A claymore is a fragmentation mine that sprays hundreds of small steel balls up to 250 meters (yards) in a wide arc.
The Tigers denied any hand in the blast.
"We are not involved. We are not going to break the ceasefire agreement," rebel media coordinator Daya Master told Reuters by telephone from the Tigers' northern stronghold of Kilinochchi.
The government had no immediate response. The Colombo stock exchange .CSE plunged over 6 percent on the news as investors waited to see if the situation would escalate further, but heavyweight investors had yet to join the selling spree by smaller investors.
"The key question here is as to whether this is an intensification with the explicit objective of resuming hostilies or whether it is an intensification to probe the attitude and disposition of the new government," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the center for Policy Alternatives.
"Is this a recce mission on how tough are these guys, or is it a question of saying we are determined now to go back to war? And I suspect it is probably more of a question of let us probe and test their patience as much as possible," he added
Analysts said new President Mahinda Rajapakse's naming yesterday of a battle-hardened army commander, Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka, was intended as s message to the Tigers, who analysts say are using the truce to regroup and rearm.
The government has blamed Sunday's attack on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who last month threatened to resume their struggle for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils next year unless given wide political powers.
The army has boosted troop numbers on the streets of Jaffna, where residents say the atmosphere is extremely tense.
Patrols have also been stepped up in the eastern port town of Trincomalee after two Tamils were killed and three abducted Muslim farmers were found slain on Saturday. Officials say the violence was the result of flaring tensions between ethnic Tamils and Muslims.
Amnesty International said late on Monday that both government and Tigers were using human rights as a weapon by failing to probe the rash of killings. It called for an independent investigation body.
"It is a grave situation, volatile, ready to implode," Amnesty secretary general Irene Khan told reporters during a visit to Sri Lanka. "We think it's very important that there be investigation that is independent and transparent and seen to be."
"Human rights have become a political weapon, where each side is trying to put the blame on the other side, and taking little concrete action to stop the spate of killings, abductions and harrassment," she added.
Nordic truce monitors have appealed to both sides to halt the violence, which is steadily eroding the ceasefire. More than 220 police, military, rebel cadres and civilians have now been killed since the truce was agreed, the monitors say.
Some observers fear the intensifying attacks could presage a return to a two-decade civil war that killed over 64,000 people.