War fears grow as Sri Lanka toll rises


Using rings and other belongings, Sri Lankan officials tried to identify 12 soldiers killed in a mine blast, the latest attack on the military by suspected rebels that has raised fears of a return to civil war.

Yesterday's attack in the island's far north was one of the deadliest incidents since a 2002 ceasefire and the second such attack in less than a week.

The rise in violence this month is straining the truce to breaking point, but the government has held back from retaliating in the hope the Tiger rebels will be shunned and isolated by the international community.

"It is war in all but name," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"They cling on to the ceasefire agreement as some kind of totem pole, but in effect on the ground it doesn't hold with these kind of casualty figures," he added. "To say that there is a ceasefire in the country is somewhat farcical."

Troops today searched for Tamil Tiger rebels and claymore fragmentation mines in military-held areas in the north and east in a bid to prevent any repeat ambushes.

Yesterday's attack came after the assassination of a pro-rebel member of parliament at a Christmas mass and the deaths of 13 sailors killed in a mine and rocket-propelled grenade attack by suspected Tigers in the island's northwest.

The attacks have revived fears of a return to a two-decade civil war that killed more than 64,000 people, made hundreds of thousands homeless and damaged the economy.

A return to conflict would also compound the misery of thousands of Sri Lankans whose lives were wrecked by last year's tsunami, which hit the east particularly hard.

The government has appealed to the island's main donors - Japan, the United States, Norway and the European Union - to make good on a warning to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that continued attacks would bring serious consequences.