Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sri Lanka donors voice concern as war toll climbs

COLOMBO, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's main foreign donors voiced concern on Saturday at the island's escalating civil war, calling on the government and Tamil Tiger rebels to respect human rights as the death toll steadily climbs.

Fifteen rebels and one soldier were killed on Saturday in the northwestern district of Mannar, where troops fired mortar bombs into Tiger territory, the military said, adding 59 rebels and two soldiers were killed across the north on Friday.

The military says it has killed over 200 insurgents since the government announced last week it was formally scrapping a 6-year ceasefire which degenerated into renewed war two years ago, and analysts and diplomats are bracing for more bloodshed.

Over 5,000 people have been killed since 2006 amid near daily air raids, land and sea battles, ambushes and bombings.

"The Tokyo Co-Chairs (Norway, Japan, United States and European Union) jointly express their strong concerns about the termination of the 2002 ceasefire agreement by the government of Sri Lanka," the donors said in a joint communique.

"The Co-Chairs emphasize their belief that there is no military solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka, and reiterate their support for a negotiated settlement."

The donors called on the foes to protect civilians, allow humanitarian agencies access to affected populations and urged "continued monitoring of the human rights situation by such means as to assure an appropriate role for the UN".

They also called on the government to allow them access to the Tigers in their northern stronghold and to finalise a long-delayed political devolution proposal -- which the rebels have already rejected as a non-starter.

RUINING HOPES

The government's move to annul the ceasefire, which expires on Jan. 16, has shocked the international community and is seen as ruining any hope of resurrecting peace talks any time soon.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government argues the rebels used the peace pact, which Nordic monitors said the Tigers violated thousands of times, to buy time to regroup and rearm and that they were not sincere about talking peace.

Increasingly isolated amid accusations that elements of the military were respsonsible for rights abuses, the government has rejected calls for a U.N. rights monitoring mission.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are seeking an independent state in the north and east, were not available for comment on the military's latest death toll claims.

There were no independent accounts of what had happened and the government has told the Nordic monitors they must leave the island next week.

The Tigers, who the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation describes as "among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world", said on Thursday they were now willing to fully implement the terms of the truce. They also warned they were ready to face a full-scale war if the government wages one.

The government says it will wipe out the Tigers militarily, setting the stage for what many fear will be a bloody battle for the north as a death toll of around 70,000 people since the war erupted in 1983 climbs daily.

Army Commander Sarath Fonseka says he aims to defeat the Tigers by the end of the year, though analysts say the Tigers remain a formidable opponent and see no clear winner.

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