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UPDATE 1-Sri Lanka rebels declare ceasefire for SAARC summit

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COLOMBO, July 22 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka Tamil Tiger rebels said on Tuesday they would observe a unilateral ceasefire with the military to support the South Asian Regional summit.

The rebel unilateral ceasefire came as the Sri Lanka hosting the 15th summit of the eight nation, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

“As a sign of this goodwill, our movement is glad to inform that it will observe a unilateral ceasefire that is devoid of military actions during the period of the SAARC conference from 26th July to 4th August and give our cooperation for the success of the conference,” the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said in an e-mailed statement.

The rebels said they would be forced to take defensive action if the Sri Lankan military failed to respect their gesture and carried out any offensives against them.

The rebel gesture came as government forces continue their push against the rebels’ northern stronghold in the 25-year civil war. The conflict is now concentrated in the north after the Sri Lankan army, which has vowed to finish off the Tigers this year, drove the rebels from their eastern enclave in 2007.

The military had no immediate comment and government officials were not immediately available for comment after the late night Tiger announcement; but the government has repeatedly vowed to continue to wage a military campaign until the rebels are defeated as a military force.

Sri Lanka’s 2002 Norwegian backed ceasefire pact with the Tamil Tigers formally ended in January after the government decided to scrap it, arguing that the rebels were simply using it to buy time to regroup and re-arm.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been pressing for an independent state in north and east Sri Lanka since 1983.

The rebels blame the Sri Lankan governemnt for continued fighting.

“The politics of the Sinhala nation has today taken the form of a monstrous war. Because the chauvinistic Sinhala regime is putting its trust in a military solution, the war is spreading and is turning more and more intense. Sinhala nation is intent on occupying and enslaving the Tamil homeland.”

Nordic truce monitors, who blamed troops and rebels for repeated abuses, were banished by the government after President Mahinda Rajapaksa formally scrapped a 6-year truce in January.

Analysts say the military has the upper hand in the latest phase of the long-running war, given superior air power, strength of numbers and swathes of terrain captured in the island’s east. But they still see no clear winner.

An estimated 70,000 people have died since the civil war began in 1983.

The Tigers are regularly hitting back with suicide attacks increasingly targeting civilians and roadside bombs, experts and the military say. The fighting has deterred some tourists and worried some investors in the $27 billion economy. (Reporting by Ranga Sirilal)