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Sri Lankan Government, Rebels Talk of Working Together

Four weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami killed nearly 40,000 people and destroyed hundreds of coastal towns and villages, Sri Lanka has moved out of the crisis phase of its relief efforts. The focus has shifted to reconstruction, and to the question of whether the government and the Tamil Tiger separatists will move back to the negotiating table.

There is little sign of a slow down at the Center for National Operations, or CNO - the crisis center where government officials and aid workers have organized relief efforts since the December tsunami.

Desks with such labels as "Relief and Logistics," "Search and Rescue," and "United Nations" are packed together in the crowded room - all part of the effort to coordinate relief between various agencies as quickly as possible.

But the spokesman for the CNO, Niranjan deSoysa, says with ample food stocks for people displaced by the tsunami and no signs of epidemics breaking out, this office will soon be shut. "So we're very pleased to have organized all that - so yes, our operation will slowly wind down," he said.

Sri Lanka lost nearly 40,000 people when the tsunami slammed into its shores on December 26, and millions more were displaced. The disaster prompted the international community to pour millions of dollars of assistance into Sri Lanka, a developing nation, which could not handle relief operations on its own.

Now various government ministries will coordinate efforts to rebuild villages and infrastructure destroyed on the tsunami.

Both the disaster and international attention on Sri Lanka may also have implications for faltering efforts to build peace between the government and the Tamil Tiger separatists.

Before the tsunami, peace negotiations between the government and the separatist Tamil Tiger guerrilla group had all but ground to a halt.

The guerillas have fought for two decades for independence or increased autonomy in areas where ethnic Tamils are predominant. At least 60,000 people have died in the conflict.

In the tsunami's immediate aftermath, the Tamil Tigers accused the government of preventing aid from reaching rebel areas - a charge the government denied.

Now, both the government and the rebels realize they may have to work together.

On Saturday, a Norwegian delegation that has been facilitating peace talks met with the Tamil Tigers, and called on them to form a panel with the government to monitor aid distribution. Anton Balasingham, the chief negotiator for the rebels, also called the LTTE, told the Norwegians that the two sides had already thought of that.

"We have also told them, already the LTTE is involved in discussions in a preliminary stage with the government to formulate a mechanism, a regional mechanism so that the aid should reach the tsunami affected people without any problems," said Mr. Balasingham.

Still, mutual suspicions remain. Also Saturday, Mr. Balasingham accused the government of using the disaster to build up its military strength. He accused government soldiers of harassing aid workers in predominantly Tamil areas.

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga has called on politicians across the country not to use the tsunami for political gain. She also has said she would like to see the peace process resume. With the crisis phase of the disaster behind them, many will be waiting to see if the government and the Tamil Tigers can ensure that some good comes out of the tragedy.