The blast, which killed three soldiers and wounded two, came as Norwegian peace envoy Eric Solheim arrived in Colombo on a mission to prevent the island nation from slipping back into full-blown civil war.

 

Police and the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry has blamed the Monday attack in eastern Batticaloa on Tamil Tiger rebels.

 

Rohan Abeywardene, deputy inspector general of police for the eastern districts of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee, said: "The patrol was attacked three miles (5km) outside Batticaloa town. The Tigers were responsible. Who else?"

 

In a series of meetings, Solheim, was scheduled to hold talks with President Mahinda Rajapakse and travel to the Tamil Tiger rebels' capital of Kilinochchi to meet their reclusive leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

 

"The Tigers were responsible. Who else?"

Rohan Abeywardene, Deputy Inspector General of Police

Solheim is hoping to save the truce he negotiated between the two sides four years ago.

 

Separately, Anton Balasingham, the rebels' peace negotiator, also arrived in Sri Lanka from his home in London.

 

Pro-rebel website TamilNet.com said Balasingham would be travelling to Kilinochchi aboard a Sri Lankan air force helicopter later on Monday.

 

Solheim, who negotiated the 2002 ceasefire, also planned to meet Nicholas Burns, the visiting US Undersecretary of  State, later on Monday, the US Embassy said.

 

According to an embassy statement, Burns will "call again for the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to resume talks on strengthening the ceasefire agreement as soon as possible."

 

Truce under strain

 

President Rajapakse has offered
talks but no Tamil homeland

Sri Lanka's fragile truce has come under heavy strain with almost daily reports of new violence, much of it blamed on the rebels.

 

Monday's landmine attack brings the total number of government security personnel killed since 4 December in attacks blamed on the rebels to at least 81.

 

The rebels have repeatedly denied involvement, in turn accusing government troops of killing civilians in revenge attacks, which the government denies.

 

The rebels have fought the government since 1983 to create a separate homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, accusing the majority Sinhalese-dominated state of discrimination.

 

The Tigers' leadership has threatened to resume their armed struggle this year unless President Rajapakse gives them a separate Tamil homeland, which he has refused to do. 
 

"What we hope for is that we can set some steps in
the right direction"

 

Nordic diplomat

About 65,000 people were killed in the conflict before the 2002 ceasefire.

 

Peace talks broke down in April 2003, when the Tigers withdrew, demanding more autonomy in the Tamil-majority northeast region.

 

Norway, which was invited to mediate in the Sri Lanka conflict because of its experience in Middle East peace efforts, has sought to play down hopes of a breakthrough from Solheim's latest visit to the island.

 

"It's unrealistic that [Solheim] will come here for three days and solve all Sri Lanka's problems," said a Nordic diplomat.

 

"What we hope for is that we can set some steps in
the right direction."