A senior government official said yesterday that Tamil Tiger rebels had offered to renew peace talks after weeks of the most intense fighting since a ceasefire was signed four years ago.
Even as news of a possible resumption in talks spread from Colombo, soldiers and rebels backed by artillery and mortars battled in the northern Jaffna Peninsula, the heartland of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in whose name the insurgents claim to fight.
The offer by the Tamil rebels was conveyed through a Nordic ceasefire monitoring mission and has been accepted by the government, said Palitha Kohona, chief of the Sri Lankan government's peace secretariat.
After being told of the rebels' offer, "we gave a very positive answer, and we said we will start talks immediately," he said.
Officials were waiting for the Tigers to respond so that a time and place for the talks could be set, Kohona said.
The spokesman for the Nordic mission, Thorfinnur Omarsson, said the Tigers had made a verbal request for renewed talks and said they would follow it up with a formal, written offer.
"We are waiting for a formal letter and we would be happy to facilitate," he said.
The offer came two days ago, and the government was still prepared to talk despite Saturday's assassination of a senior peace secretariat official in a Colombo suburb, Kohona said.
The government blamed the rebels for the assassination of Ketheesh Loganathan, who was deputy chief of the peace secretariat, which has coordinated the government's side of a Norway-brokered peace process.
Loganathan, a Tamil, was shot at his home, and the government's peace Web site said the rebel group killed Loganathan "in its quest to eliminate prominent Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka opposed to the ruthless brutality" of the rebels.
The rebels have not commented on Loganathan's killing and were not immediately available to discuss their reported offer to resume talks.
The latest round of fighting began late last month over a rebel-controlled water supply near the eastern port of Trincomalee, and has in recent days spread to other parts of the east and to the Jaffna Peninsula, most of which has been controlled by the government for the more than a decade.
Tigers and government forces exchanged artillery fire yesterday near two key entry points to the peninsula, the government said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from yesterday's fighting, but the government said on Saturday that its forces had killed more than 200 rebels and lost 27 of their own in the day's fighting. There was no word from the rebels about casualties.
Government and rebel estimates of the death toll in the fighting since last month vary wildly, but scores have been killed, including 17 Sri Lankans working for the Paris-based aid group Action Against Hunger.
All but one of the aid workers was Tamil.
The 2002 ceasefire was intended to halt more than two decades of bloodshed between the government, dominated by Sri Lanka's 14 million Sinhalese, and the rebels, who have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for Tamils in the north and east.
While the ceasefire remains officially in effect, it had been left in tatters by months of shootings and bombings, and the latest fighting appeared set to undermine it completely.
The recent fighting has also forced thousands of civilians from their homes in the north and east, and thousands were reported trapped by the weekend's battles on the Jaffna Peninsula.