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Sri Lankan PM Visits Rebel Stronghold

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is visiting the northern Jaffna Peninsula - the stronghold of Tamil Tiger rebels. He arrived for a two-day visit Thursday. It is the first time a prime minister has gone to the area in two decades and is being seen as a signal of the government's confidence in the peace process begun recently with the guerrillas.

In a message to the Tamil residents of Jaffna, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said, "We are all equals." He said the government wants to improve their lives and is committed to making a fresh start.

The prime minister talked with Tamil representatives, to assess the living conditions in the area, and visited a Hindu temple.

Mr. Wickremesinghe also visited government troops on the front line and urged them to avoid violating an indefinite cease-fire negotiated with Tamil rebels last month. He said there is popular support in the nation to end the civil war.

The prime minister's visit to Jaffna is seen as an effort to establish links with the Tamil population in the north - where the Tamil rebels launched their separatist struggle, nearly two decades ago, complaining of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.

Jaffna is the center of Tamil culture and was home to many of the country's three million Tamils - many of whom left, to escape the fighting. The region has borne the brunt of civil war.

The prime minister's visit is being seen as a signal that the government is willing to trust the rebels. Jaffna was controlled by the guerrillas until it was taken over by government troops in a fierce battle in 1995. Although the military managed to hold onto the town, it had never been safe for government leaders to visit the area.

Hopes for a settlement to the Tamil separatist struggle have risen since Mr. Wickremesinghe took office in December - pledging to end the civil war through negotiations. The cease-fire now in place is seen as the first step to peace talks expected to begin in three months.

Two senior U.S. officials also visit Jaffna on Friday. Analysts said this is a clear indication that the United States is playing a significant role in the Sri Lankan peace process.