Lanka ready for talks despite fighting

Colombo, October 12:

The Sri Lankan government today said it remains committed to peace talks with Tamil Tiger separatists, despite raging battles a day earlier that the military said killed 200 rebels and up to 129 soldiers. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had received the bodies of 74 soldiers from the rebels today.

Heavy fighting subsided at the battle sites on northern Jaffna Peninsula, but sporadic artillery fire continued across the front lines, an officer at the government’s Media Centre for National Security said on condition of anonymity.

“Our information confirms that over 200 Tamil Tigers were killed in the fighting,” he said.

The rebels’ military spokesman, Irasiah Ilanthirayan, said late yesterday that front-line rebel forces claimed 75 government soldiers had died, along with 10 rebels. He also said the rebels had captured one soldier. An ICRC spokesman said today that the bodies of 74 soldiers had been handed over today by the rebels. They are being taken to Vavuniya, said ICRC spokesman Davide Vignati. A military spokesman said 55 soldiers were confirmed killed, but that would rise to 129 if it was confirmed the ICRC had received the bodies of 74 other soldiers.

Fighter jets pounded rebel positions yesterday, triggering fierce battles in the besieged region. The military denied it was the start of a major offensive, saying it had fired heavy artillery and rockets after sporadic attacks by rebels since Tuesday along the de facto border separating government and rebel-held areas near Muhamalai, on the peninsula.

The battle came after rebel political chief Suppiah Thamilselvan agreed on Tuesday to attend peace talks with the government later this month.

The government said it would not abandon plans to attend the talks despite the fresh outbreak of fighting. “There is no change of plans on the talks and the decision (to attend) remains,” government spokesman Anura Priya Yapa told reporters in the capital, Colombo.

The US government welcomed the planned talks but cautioned that continuing violence is creating doubts on whether the talks will take place.