Landmine kills 10 in Sri Lanka ahead of talks

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At least 10 army officials were killed in a landmine explosion in the northern rebellious region of Sri Lanka on Tuesday, sending a bleak signal ahead of talks on Wednesday between the country’s recently-elected president, Mahinda Rajapakse, and India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, in New Delhi.

The deaths take to more than 100 the number of killings this month alone, the bloodiest four-week period since Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the dominant Tamil separatist group, signed a ceasefire in February 2002.

“So many security forces have been targeted that my fear is the authorities may soon say, ‘enough is enough’,” said Hagrup Haukland, head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which tracks the ceasefire.

President Rajapakse said during campaigning in November he was prepared to hold direct negotiations with the rebel movement. No official high-level talks have taken place since January 2004, when officials met to discuss post-tsunami aid distribution.

Last weekend, the LTTE’s senior political representative met representatives of the US, EU, Norway and Japan, the main providers of development assistance to Sri Lanka’s fast growing economy. The LTTE leader denied responsibility for the recent burst in killings in government-controlled areas – anywhere outside of the northern peninsula that is controlled by the LTTE. The most notable killing was a Tamil parliamentarian, shot dead during midnight mass on Christmas Day in the eastern city of Batticaloa.

President Rajapakse’s narrow electoral victory was helped by a Tamil boycott in the north, and alliance partners strongly opposed to further concessions to the LTTE. Though portrayed as a hardliner, he has displayed signs of moderation, offering a reassurance that Norway would continue to play a role in the peace talks, which broke down in 2003.

European diplomats in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, said Mr Rajapakse may be seeking a “stronger” Indian role in peace efforts to end his country’s 20-year civil war. India’s ministry of external affairs has expressed “concern at the escalation in violence” but officials in New Delhi say a renewed Indian role is remote. “We have heard what he [Rajapakse] has said in the past, this is his chance to add clarity,” said a senior Indian diplomat.

India keeps a close watch on developments in Sri Lanka, maintaining a positive dialogue with the four “co-chairs” of the peace process. A senior Indian official, for example, was briefed at the most recent gathering of the co-chairs, in Brussels on December 19.

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