East Sri Lanka tense, Norway tries to save peace bid (SRI LANKA)

COLOMBO: Protesters burned barricades at Tamil Tiger checkpoints in east Sri Lanka today and tsunami aid workers stayed inside as peace broker Norway tried again to patch up a shaky peace process and arrange crunch talks.


Relief officials said the protests were in response to the reported abductions of staff from an aid group closely tied to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who blame the government for the incident and say it will delay talks scheduled in Geneva for mid-February.

''It seems they're not letting people cross into Tiger-controlled areas,'' said Helen Olafsdottir, spokeswoman for the Nordic-staffed mission monitoring a 2002 ceasefire.

''They're burning tyres at the crossing points.'' The barricades appeared to be limited to the east, she said. Sri Lanka had seemed to be stepping back from the brink of civil war in late January when the two sides agreed to meet in Switzerland and talk about stopping violence that had killed more than 200 people in two months.

But after the reported abduction of 10 workers from the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), effectively the relief arm of the de facto Tamil state, the rebels said they would not accept the government's suggested dates of February 15 and 16, and were aiming for talks at the end of the month instead.

If the talks fail or are cancelled, diplomats say, it would be difficult to avoid going back to a two-decade civil war that has already killed more than 64,000 people. Norway said Solheim was due to meet chief rebel negotiator Anton Balasingham later today in London to try to resolve the new impasse.

The Tigers say the key issue is the abductions. Three of the aid workers have since been released, but seven remain unaccounted for. Some diplomats say the abduction story may be a rebel ploy, but others believe it.

The rebels also say the army has continued to harass and abuse Tamil civilians. The military deny the charge, as they do any involvement in the abductions.

TSUNAMI WORK HALTED Aid workers in the island's east, which bore the brunt of the 2004 tsunami, said they had been asked to observe a work stoppage -- or hartal -- on Monday in protest at the abductions. While the request officially came through local civic groups, most said they believed it originated from the LTTE.

''Just after they decided to go to Geneva, things were much better here,'' one foreign aid worker told Reuters from the east. ''But in the last week, it's been getting worse. Most of the offices are closed today, and there's no vehicle movement.'' Agency vehicles that did venture out were stopped by small crowds of young men, aid workers said, who asked they observe the work stoppage. At the height of violence in December and January, some aid agencies stopped work in some areas completely.

The military found six claymore fragmentation mines and detonators like those used in deadly ambushes in December and January buried in the northern, army-held Jaffna peninsula, but ceasefire monitors said the rest of the island was quiet.

Suspected rebel front groups, who analysts say the Tigers have used to take responsibility for their attacks, said they were withdrawing from their own unilateral ceasefires announced after the Geneva talks were agreed.

Over the weekend, some said they would target groups who they say are government-backed paramilitaries, but on Monday the ''Up Surging People Brigade'' said on a pro-rebel website it would also kick out the Sri Lankan armed forces from Jaffna.

''We cannot any more tolerate our people being killed and oppressed,'' the group said. ''It is no longer possible to be patient. Therefore we beg the international community and the Liberation Tigers to forgive us.''

Von: 06.02.2006, http://www.newkerala.com/news2.php?action=fullnews&id=3379

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