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Tamil Rebels Threaten to Attack Sri Lankan Navy Ships

Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels have warned that they will attack any navy ships that approach coastal areas under their control, and that international cease-fire monitors who travel with the navy do so at their own peril. The warning comes a day after a naval battle killed 17 sailors and as many as 50 rebels - the worst military confrontation since a 2002 cease-fire.

Observers from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, SLMM, say the Tamil Tigers went on the offensive Thursday and intentionally started the clash with the Sri Lankan navy - a move they say recklessly endangers any chance for peace talks.

The SLMM is monitoring a cease-fire between the two sides that was brokered by Norway in 2002.

Some monitors were aboard a navy transport ship when a flotilla of boats from the rebels' Sea Tigers unit attacked. The SLMM called the rebels' attack a gross violation of the cease-fire.

The Tamil Tigers say it was the navy who attacked them during a training exercise.

In a statement on their Web page, the Tigers also warned that they will not be responsible for the consequences if any cease-fire observers travel aboard navy vessels again. The rebels, who are also known as the LTTE, say the Sri Lankan government is using the monitors as human shields, to save them from rebel attack. The monitors deny that allegation.

"That's ridiculous," said Robert Nielsson, a spokesman for the monitoring mission. "It's stipulated in the cease-fire agreement that we should be on board Sri Lankan navy vessels and that we are monitoring sea operations. And that's even signed by both parties - even the LTTE."

The SLMM has not said exactly how many monitors were aboard the ship that was fired on.

The government says its forces responded to the attack by destroying five rebel boats, damaging three others and launching air strikes on rebel territory. The government says 17 sailors and some 50 rebels were killed in the sea battle.

On Friday, a senior SLMM official went to the rebel-held town of Kilinochi to meet with Tiger leadership. The official's goal, Nielsson says, is to investigate Thursday's clash and to try to persuade the rebels to return to the negotiating table before tensions escalate further.

The Tamil Tigers and the government have spent more than 20 years locked in a civil war. The rebels want greater rights for the country's ethnic Tamil minority. More than 60,000 have died in the conflict.

Thursday's clash was the most violent since the 2002 cease-fire, and the latest in a series of incidents suggesting that cease-fire is near collapse. More than 150 people have been killed since the start of April.