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Wednesday, 24 April, 2002, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
Sri Lankan navy 'intercepts Tigers'
Tamil Tiger rebels
The rebels used to frequently clash with the navy
The Sri Lankan ceasefire faced a severe test on Wednesday when the navy said it intercepted three boats carrying some 40 Tamil Tiger rebels.

The navy said Scandinavian peace monitors were called in and the rebels then allowed to disembark, with no fighting taking place.

Both the government and the Tigers have been observing a ceasefire since 24 December, one of the key planks of the island's peace process.

The Tigers' chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, flew out of rebel-held territory on Wednesday after spending a month preparing the agenda for direct peace talks scheduled for June.

Reinforcements

The navy says it spotted the three Tiger boats sailing southwards near the town of Trincomalee at 0820 local time.

Reinforcements were sent to back up navy ships already in the area.

Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne told the BBC that there was no evidence so far the rebels on the boat were involved in gun-running.

The navy said that Pontos Westron, a peace monitor, was called to the scene to mediate between the two sides.

Correspondents say a major confrontation was avoided.

The navy handed the rebels over to the police. Some appeared in court in Trincomalee where they were bailed and told to reappear in court next month.

The others were released, reports say.

Defence Secretary Austin Fernando told the BBC the government would try to make sure there were peace monitors stationed on board all navy ships in the future.

He said in future such incidents could be avoided if the Tigers informed the monitors of their movements.

June talks

On the diplomatic front, Tamil Tiger negotiator Anton Balasingham left Sri Lanka on Wednesday after extensive consultations with his military leaders.

Rebel fighter
Some 60,000 people have died in the war

He is expected to return to his base in London where he has lived for the last three years.

Last week the Norwegian deputy foreign minister, who has been mediating in the conflict, visited Tamil Tiger leaders and said peace talks would begin in mid-June in Thailand.

The BBC's, Frances Harrison, reporting from Kilinochchi, the main town under rebel control, says the fact that the Sri Lankan Government allowed Mr Balasingham to return there at all is a sign of how fast the peace process is now progressing.

The easing of restrictions on movement between government and rebel territory have led to thousands of people crossing what were once heavily fortified front lines every day.

Our correspondent says ordinary people who have suffered two decades of conflict are beginning to feel the benefits of peace.

There is a sense that this country is unlikely to return to war, at least in the near future.

See also:

25 Mar 02 | South Asia
Tamil rebel returns home
14 Mar 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka PM visits troubled north
02 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka eases Tamil embargo
22 Mar 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka prepares ground for talks
25 Mar 02 | South Asia
Boost for Sri Lanka peace hopes
22 Feb 02 | South Asia
Ceasefire signed in Sri Lanka
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