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Norwegian Officials in Sri Lanka to Broker Truce - 2002-02-07


In Sri Lanka, senior Norwegian officials have arrived to arrange a permanent truce between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels. There is a growing sense of optimism about a peace process getting under way in the island nation, where Tamil Tiger guerrillas have waged a separatist insurgency for the last 19 years.

Sri Lankan Constitutional Affairs Minister GL Peiris said the Norwegian delegation has come to Colombo with a draft agreement on what he called "cessation of hostilities" between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Norway is trying to broker a lasting peace between the two sides. The government and the rebels are already observing separate unilateral truces that expire February 24. Before they end, the Norwegian delegation, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen, wants to put a formal cease-fire in place. This is expected to clear the way for peace talks between the two sides.

Both the government and Tamil rebels say they are optimistic an agreement on an indefinite truce will be signed in the coming days. Mr. Peiris said the government is "very satisfied" with progress made, so far.

According to the draft agreement, the proposed cease-fire is to be monitored by Nordic countries. It will give unarmed government troops access to rebel-held areas in the northeast and allow unarmed Tamil rebels to enter government-held territory in the region, without being arrested.

Norway has been mediating between the Sri Lankan government and the rebels for the last two years. However, earlier efforts failed because of the previous government's tough policy towards the rebels.

Hopes of getting a peace process underway revived when a new government took charge in December, pledging to end the Tamil separatist conflict through negotiations.

Senior Norwegian officials are now expressing optimism about bringing the government and the rebels to the negotiating table by the middle of this year.

The government has already taken several confidence-building measures to encourage the Tamil Tigers to join peace talks. These include easing an economic embargo on rebel-held territory in the north and the east.

The government has also eased restrictions on fishing in Sri Lanka's northern waters.

Army officials say they have begun clearing mines along arterial roads to open major supply routes to the north.

The Tamil separatist insurgency has raged in the north and east of Sri Lanka since 1983 and claimed more than 60,000 lives. Tamil rebels complain of discrimination against their minority community and say they want a separate homeland.

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