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Sri Lanka Steps Up Investigation After Assassination of Judge  - 2004-11-22

The Sri Lankan police have begun investigations into the murder of a High Court judge, the latest in a spate of recent shootings and killings in the island nation, where peace talks between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels remain deadlocked.

Police say they are questioning dozens of people to see if the killing of High Court judge Sarath Ambepitiya had any links to either organized crime or the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Mr. Ambepitiya was shot outside his home in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, last Friday.

He was known for handing down tough sentences to law offenders such as drug dealers. Two years ago, he also sentenced the leader of the Tamil rebels, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, to 200 years in prison for planning a bombing that killed more than 90 people.

The judge's killing came a day after a military informant and a soldier were shot in the east of the country. The government says these two killings had all the "hallmarks" of the Tamil Tigers, and officials have accused the rebels of breaking a two-and-a-half-year-old truce between the government and the rebels.

In a statement, the government said the continuing violations raise doubts about the rebels' commitment to peace.

The head of Colombo's Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, says the escalating violence in the north has raised concern about the future of the country's fragile peace process.

"It does not mean that the cease-fire has been torn up or totally invalidated, but it certainly does put a stress and strain on the cease-fire," he said. "Because what you have is a situation of no war, no peace, with continuing killings and insecurity within the Tamil community."

The Tamil Tigers are accused of slaying scores of opponents over the years, including military intelligence personnel and members of a rival faction that split off from the main rebel movement in March. They assassinated an Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and injured the current Sri Lankan president, Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The government and the rebels signed a cease-fire in 2002. Peace talks have been on hold since last year, and recent efforts by Norwegian and Japanese mediators to bridge the differences between the two sides have been unsuccessful.

However, both sides say they remain committed to a peaceful settlement to end the conflict, which centers on demands by the rebels for wider autonomy in the Tamil-dominated areas of the north and east.

Despite the breakdown of peace talks, the cease-fire has been holding. The recent killings have raised fears that the rebels might have resumed their campaign of violence and assassination.