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Sri Lanka: New Truce Paves Way for Peace Talks - 2002-02-22

Sri Lanka and Tamil Tiger rebels have signed a formal indefinite cease-fire agreement Friday. The truce paves the way for peace talks between the government and the guerrillas who have waged a separatist insurgency for nearly two decades.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe handed over the truce document to Norway's ambassador to Sri Lanka Jon Westborg at the northern frontline town of Vavuniya.

Norwegian mediators, who have brokered the cease-fire, have also received a similar document from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The truce takes effect Saturday, a day before the expiry of separate unilateral cease-fires being observed by both sides.

The cease-fire agreement was later anounced by Norway's foreign minister Jan Petersen in Oslo.

The foreign minister said the cease-fire will pave the way for further steps towards negotiations. He said he was hopeful peace talks will take place by spring. Norway has been working for two years with both sides in the conflict before reaching the agreement.

According to the agreement,the cease-fire will be supervised by an international monitoring mission led by Norway. It requires both sides to give two weeks notice before pulling out of the pact.

It is the first bilateral truce in seven years. In 1995, a cease-fire ended after 100 days when Tamil rebels attacked government soldiers. But this time hopes are high that the truce will lead to a concrete peace process.

Prime Minsiter Wickremesinghe had been elected in December on a mandate of ending the civil war that has dragged on for nearly two decades killing more than 60,000 people and displacing more than one million others.

Observers say Mr. Wickremesinghe's trip to Vavuniya - a government controlled town on the edge of rebel controlled jungles - was meant to underline the government's commitment to negotiating peace with the rebels.

For their part, thousands of Tamil civilians in the north held special prayers at temples for the success of the peace efforts.

The truce is being called a major breakthrough in the Tamil insurgency that has raged in the island nation. The rebels have been fighting for a separate homeland for the minority Tamil community, which they say suffers from discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.