Sri Lanka's government said yesterday it would provide safe passage for Tamil Tiger officials so they could travel to Geneva for peace talks, a day after the military said it killed dozens of rebels in a fierce sea battle.
"We will provide the necessary security in spite of their provocations," government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said.
Tamil Tiger leaders must travel through Colombo, the site of the country's only international airport, to fly to Switzerland for talks scheduled to start Oct. 28.
Rebel political chief Suppiah Thamilselvan was quoted as saying by the pro-rebel TamilNet Web site that attending talks would depend on the government guaranteeing their security as they travel through the capital -- a city they normally avoid, fearing they could be a military target.
"We have accommodated them over the years. We will provide security, although they have unleashed terror ... even outside the northeast," Rambukwella said. "We are a democratic government and not a terrorist outfit."
Rambukwella's comments came after heavy fighting off northern Jaffna Peninsula on Friday between the navy and insurgents reportedly left 35 rebels dead.
The military said the battle came after navy patrol boats intercepted about 15 rebel boats, setting off a 90-minute battle.
"Seven boats were destroyed by naval attacks and we believe at least 35 insurgents were killed in the attack," a Defense Ministry spokesman said, adding that the other rebel boats fled.
Rebel spokesman Irasiah Ilanthirayan later confirmed that the navy attacked Tiger vessels but said that no insurgents had been killed.
The battle came amid a spike in attacks across the country that have left hundreds of combatants dead. On Wednesday, Tamil Tigers posing as fishermen blew up two boats in a suicide attack on a naval base on the touristy southern coast, killing at least one sailor. The battle killed 15 rebels.
On Friday, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher ended a two-day visit to the island by calling on both sides to stop fighting and seek a solution when they resume peace talks.
"In the end, the fighting is not getting anybody anywhere," Boucher told reporters in Colombo. "The only way to go in the right direction is through negotiations."
Despite the soaring violence, both sides say they remain committed to peace talks.
Diplomatic efforts have also been stepped up ahead of the talks. Japanese peace envoy Yasushi Akashi was on the island this week along with envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer of Norway, which brokered a 2002 cease-fire.
The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority, citing decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. About 65,000 were killed before the cease-fire.