Envoy Erik Solheim is expected to arrive on Monday for talks with Sri Lankan leaders as well as Tamil Tiger guerrillas after a high-profile attempt by Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen last month failed to revive peace talks.

Norwegian diplomats described Solheim's latest visit as routine but officials said the timing was crucial.

Violence has been escalating in the island's embattled northern and eastern regions, with the Tigers and the defence ministry here accusing each other of responsibility.

Bolster security

Last week, public security minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake told parliament the government would strengthen its security forces to meet any threat, but stopped short of referring to any danger from Tiger rebels.

Clashes have resumed between
the LTTE and government forces

"We will strengthen armed forces in terms of men, material, ideas and weapons," Wickremanayake said during a debate on defence which gets an additional 8% in the 2005 budget.

Wickremanayake is the junior defence minister under President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who also holds the defence portfolio. He said the government was against conditions set by Tiger rebels to resume stalled talks.

"No one is expecting peace talks any time soon," a diplomat close to the peace process said. "What the Norwegians will attempt is to ensure that the ceasefire is not put under any more pressure."

Increased tensions

Both the government and the Tamil Tigers have set out their terms for reviving peace talks stalled since April last year, but both have also said they will abide by the truce that went into effect from 23 February 2002.

However, there was growing unease between security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) over skirmishes since the guerrillas honoured their war dead last month.

Thousands of civilians have died
in the decades-old civil conflict

The private Sunday Times newspaper here reported the military was halting helicopter rides it had earlier provided Tiger leaders travelling from the country's only international airport to rebel-held areas.

"The decision stems from a refusal by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, tasked to monitor the ceasefire, in response to an air force request for assurances that their helicopters would be safe when they fly to Tiger guerrilla-dominated areas," the newspaper said.

There was no immediate reaction either from the military or the Tigers to the reported decision of the air force to stop air-lifts to Tiger leaders.

Renewed conflict fears

Retired air force chief Harry Gunatillake said he feared the Tigers could slowly drift back to resuming their decades-old guerrilla war which had been largely suspended since the Oslo-brokered truce in February 2002.

"I don't expect much from Solheim's latest visit," Gunatillake said. "They have to keep up appearances. They must be seen as engaging the parties. It is the government that must get its act together."

"I don't expect much from Solheim's visit"

Retired Air Force chief Harry Gunatillake

The Tigers insist the government should open talks based on their proposal for an interim self-governing authority seeking self-rule, but the government wants elements of a final peace deal also included. 

Minister Wickremanayake said last week Colombo was ready to discuss the Tiger proposal, but it must be accompanied with talks on a final settlement to a conflict which has claimed more than 60,000 lives since 1972.

Prospects for ending the three-decades of Tamil separatist conflict dimmed further two weeks ago when the government formally rejected Tiger demands for reopening negotiations.

LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran put the government on notice last month saying he will have no alternative but to "advance the freedom struggle" unless the government agreed to resume talks soon.

Colombo last week rejected Prabhakaran's stand as unacceptable.