Sri Lanka will declare a ceasefire if the island's Tamil Tigers have made good on a pledge to halt offensive operations in a town in the island's east and pulled back, the military said yesterday.
"If the pull-out is true, we will reciprocate very positively," military spokesman Major Upali Rajapakse said. "If that is the move of the Tigers, all the guns would become silent. That would be a ceasefire."
A Tiger source earlier said that the rebels were withdrawing to their own territory and halting their offensive, saying it was a humanitarian gesture to enable thousands of displaced Muslims who fled on Friday to return home.
Rajapakse also said that the military forces had thwarted a major rebel attack on a strategic jetty in Muttur, killing 35 insurgents.
The fighting came as a Norwegian peace envoy traveled to rebel heartland in the north in an effort to prevent the country from sliding back into full-blown civil war.
"Our forces have repulsed a major terrorist attack, and based on our ground information we have learned that 35 bodies of terrorists are lying there," Rajapakse said in Colombo.
The rebels had tried to capture a jetty that is a major sea supply link for the military, he said.
Rajapakse said the military had retrieved the bodies of nine rebels and would hand them over to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
There was no independent confirmation of the military's claim. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam made no mention of the battle and did not report any losses on its Web sites.
Muttur, across a bay from Trincomalee, has been the scene of the worst clashes since the two sides signed a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire in 2002. The truce has now nearly collapsed.
Soldiers and insurgents traded mortar fire early yesterday in Muttur, as fighting continued there for a sixth day.
About 11,000 civilians have fled the fighting, Rajapakse said.
"But there are more people trapped inside," he said, without giving a number.
Earlier, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said 6,000 to 7,000 families were trying to get out of Muttur.
"We tried to reach Muttur yesterday, but we could not," said Toon Vandenhove, Sri Lanka head of the ICRC in Colombo.
Shelling by both the Tamil Tiger rebels and the military was making the task difficult, according to district administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Muttur, which is a government-controlled town edged by rebel-held villages and jungle, is located on a small peninsula, and travelers must cross several ferries or take land routes that are often shelled.
"I walked for two hours to get out," said Mohamad Nazim, who was able to leave Muttur on Friday.
The relief agency Tamil Rehabilitation Organization said that 10,000 families had taken shelter in churches, temples and schools, and appealed for immediate help.
The town remains largely off-limits to outsiders because of the fighting.
Norwegian peace envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer, who arrived in Colombo on Friday to try to pull the two sides back from the brink of full-scale civil war, was traveling to Jaffna, the Tamil heartland in the north, to meet with local officials before heading to Kilinochchi, Norwegian embassy spokesman Tom Knappskog said.
Knappskog said that the envoy would spend the night in Kilinochchi, the rebel stronghold, for extensive discussions with rebel officials.