updated 2/23/2009 2:56:34 PM ET 2009-02-23T19:56:34

Sri Lanka's Tamil rebels, facing likely defeat on the battlefield, appealed for a cease-fire Monday — a call immediately rejected by the government as a final effort by the separatists to "save their miserable skins."

The Tamil Tiger rebels have lost most of their strongholds to government forces and are trapped on a sliver of land in the northeast along with tens of thousands of civilians. The government says it will soon take the remaining rebel territory.

"We are ready to discuss, cooperate, and work together in all their efforts to bring an immediate cease-fire and work towards a political settlement," the Tamil Tigers' political chief Balasingham Nadesan wrote in the letter to the United Nations, which also was sent to Britain, Japan, Norway and the United States.

But Nadesan rejected international calls for the rebels to lay down their arms, saying the weapons "are the protective shield of the Tamil people and their tool for political liberation."

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said his government will only accept an unconditional surrender.

"Instead of surrendering as the entire international community and the Sri Lankan government has called them to do, (the rebels) are calling the very people who have asked them to surrender, to save their miserable skins," Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said Monday in response to the rebel letter.

The two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 2002 that many had hoped would be the start of a peace process to reach a political compromise and end the civil war that has plagued this country since 1983 and killed more than 70,000 people.

Violence flared 3 years ago
But peace talks broke down and new violence flared three years ago. In 2008, the government officially scrapped the cease-fire agreement and pledged to destroy the rebel group.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York on Monday that the United Nations deplores the increasing civilian casualty toll, and that the two sides must resume peace talks.

With the military sweeping across rebel territory in recent months, the Tamil Tigers have repeatedly called for a new truce, but the government has refused.

In his letter, Nadesan also urged the international community to reconsider its opposition to the rebels' demand for an independent state for Sri Lanka's ethnic minority Tamils.

Jehan Perera, a political analyst from the National Peace Council, said the rebel call for a cease-fire showed they were trying "everything militarily and politically" to stave off defeat.

Perera said the two sides should consider the plight of civilians caught in the war zone and agree to a truce. But he said the rebels must be prepared to drop demands that the government does not consider negotiable, such as an independent Tamil state.

In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers on Monday called for an immediate cease-fire but said the rebels should "renounce terrorism and violence once and for all" and push for political talks with the government.

The EU says the government must also stop its human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch said last week that some 2,000 civilians have been killed in recent months and accused both sides of committing war crimes.

On Friday, two rebel aircraft staged a suicide attack targeting the country's air force headquarters and an air base. The government said it shot down the planes before they reached their targets.

More on: Sri Lanka

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