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Geneva Talks Will Determine Future Course of Sri Lanka Peace Process


The Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels are meeting in Switzerland to hold their first direct discussions since the island's peace process ground to a halt nearly three years ago. The talks are seen as a last opportunity to prevent a return to a deadly ethnic conflict.

The two-day talks starting Wednesday will not seek a long-term solution to Sri Lanka's war, and instead will focus on short-term issues that have led to a near breakdown of a cease-fire signed in 2002.

A series of attacks that killed more than 120 rebels and soldiers in December and January triggered fears that the island country may plunge back into war. An international effort intervened to save the situation.

The violence erupted after the election of a hard-line president who says he will not consider the Tamil Tigers' core demand for an autonomous Tamil homeland. The rebels in turn threatened to resume a conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives over two decades.

Norwegian mediators who arranged these new talks have called them a "small but significant step toward putting the peace process back on track."

Analysts say the Geneva meeting is a last chance to bridge a widening gulf between the two sides, which have not met since 2003.

Jehan Perera, head of the independent National Peace Council in Colombo, says the talks will point to the direction the peace process will take. "If these talks succeed, if they come up with a decision to meet again for a second time," said Perera, "then we can think that the situation is going to progressively improve, whereas if the talks break down, then all that we have is to go back to the situation where there was an escalation of violence and threat of imminent war."

There are hopeful signs that both sides are serious about averting a return to conflict.

Analysts point out that despite his hard-line credentials, President Mahinda Rajapakse has been more moderate than expected, agreeing to a rebel demand to meet in Europe instead of Asia. And the Tamil Tigers, branded a terrorist group by many countries, also want the world to see them as serious about seeking a negotiated settlement.

The talks will focus on implementing the cease-fire. The Tamil Tigers want the government to disarm a renegade rebel group, which they believe has military backing and is responsible for killing dozens of Tiger supporters. The government accuses the Tigers of leading recent attacks that have killed nearly 80 soldiers.

Perera says the success of the talks will hinge on how much both sides are willing to accommodate each other. "If there is the will, if there is a sincere desire to succeed, even though the two sides may be far apart in their position, then I think things can move forward, even if they do move forward a little slowly," said Perera. "The question in my mind is how willing, how able are they to compromise enough to satisfy the other and keep the process going forward."

For most Sri Lankans, the talks are seen as crucial not only to building trust and peace, but also to encouraging economic growth. The relative calm since the cease-fire has led to a rise in tourism and foreign investment in the country, which is still recovering from the 2004 tsunami. A resumption of fighting would mean lost jobs and lost investment.

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