08/04/2006, 00.00
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Sri Lanka: thousands flee clashes in north-east

Fighting continues between government forces and rebels in Mutur. The special Norwegian envoy is about to arrive for talks aimed at preventing the resumption of civil war.

Colombo (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Thousands of civilians have fled Mutur in eastern Sri Lanka where clashes between government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels have been under way since 2 August. Today, five Muslim civilians were killed in crossfire. Yesterday, 20 civilians were killed apart from 12 rebels and a soldier. Colombo has hit some schools while the rebels attacked military camps.

Rescue workers in the Muslim majority town said 22,000 people "were trapped" by the fighting. Yvonne Dunton, head of the Trincomalee office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said between 6,000 and 7,000 families had started leaving Mutur.  The Red Cross has called on Colombo to open a humanitarian corridor. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, also launched an appeal, calling for an end to the violence and the start of peace talks that have been stalled for months.

The clashes in the east arose over a dispute between the two parties over control of an important water canal: Colombo launched an offensive to free the Mavilaru canal – near Trincomalee – that was being blocked by the Tigers. However the rebels claimed this was but a pretext to penetrate territory under their control.

Meanwhile, the country awaits the arrival of the Norwegian peace envoy, Jon Hanssen-Bauer. His brief is to hold talks in a bid to salvage the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) after Denmark, Finland and Switzerland withdrew their monitors in response to a rebel ultimatum, thus causing the SLMM to dwindle from 54 to 20 members. The Tigers had demanded that SLMM members coming from European Union countries leave the country before 1 September after the EU defined them as "terrorists".

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