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Collapse of Peace Seems Closer as Sri Lankan Rebels Mount Sea Attack

An attack on naval ships by suspected Sri Lankan rebels has triggered a clash at sea. It was the latest in a series of violent attacks that are threatening to unravel a nearly four-year-old ceasefire.

A military spokesman says rebel boats hid among a fishing fleet and opened fire on two naval patrol vessels, sparking an exchange of gunfire. The clash occurred Thursday off the coast of Mannar, about 250 kilometers northwest of the capital, Colombo.

Officials say one sailor was wounded in the assault, and three are missing. The navy says it captured seven rebels.

It is the first clash at sea since a recent upsurge of violence that has targeted security personnel. The violence has intensified since Mahinda Rajapakse was elected president, saying ethnic Tamil rebels had been granted too many concessions in an earlier peace deal, and vowing to take a hard line in future negotiations.

In another incident Thursday, several policemen were injured in a grenade attack on the Jaffna peninsula, in the heart of the rebel area. Attackers killed two soldiers and wounded nine others in separate attacks on Tuesday and Wednesday, and earlier this month, 14 soldiers were killed in land mine attacks. The army has accused the rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in all the killings.

Jehan Perera, head of a peace advocacy group in Colombo, the National Peace Council, says the rebels appear to be provoking government troops into what he calls a "major retaliation."

"They are practicing brinkmanship," he said. "They are trying to push the Sri Lankan government either to war… or into pressurizing the Sri Lankan government to make major political concessions."

Earlier this week, the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway all urged the rebels to end the cycle of violence, and demonstrate their commitment to a 2002 truce and a continued peace process.

There have been growing diplomatic efforts to get the two sides back to the negotiating table - but there has been little progress. The government last week backed down from its earlier insistence on holding any talks in Sri Lanka, and offered to hold them anywhere in Asia. But the Tigers turned the offer down, and said talks must be held in Norway, which brokered the original peace deal.

President Rajapakse accused the rebels of playing politics, saying the government was ready for talks as soon as the rebels were.

The peace process has been deadlocked for more than two years - and the rebels recently warned they will return to war in 2006, if the government does not agree to their demand for an autonomous Tamil homeland in the north and the east. The country's violent ethnic conflict erupted in 1983.