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Key Sri Lanka Highway Opened - 2002-04-08


In Sri Lanka, a key highway linking the embattled north with the rest of the country has been reopened after 12 years. The road was opened as Sri Lankan authorities and Tamil guerrillas prepare for peace talks next month.

Army officials and representatives of the Tamil guerrillas attended a brief ceremony to mark the opening of the last stretch of the strategic A9 highway.

The highway will enable civilians to travel between rebel-controlled areas in the north and government-controlled areas. Earlier they had to use an expensive air and sea link.

The reopening of the road is a significant milestone in the peace process that began in February between Sri Lanka's government and the Tamil guerrillas.

During the past two decades, hundreds of soldiers and Tamil rebels have died in bloody battles fighting for the control of this road, earning it the nickname "highway of death." Its reopening is part of a cease-fire agreement signed between the Tamil guerrillas and the government.

In the past two weeks, the two sides have removed hundreds of mines planted on either side of the road. Norwegian mediators ironed out a last minute hitch over control of a bus service that will operate on the highway.

Last week, Sri Lankan authorities also lifted a six year ban on domestic flights, clearing the way for commercial airliners to resume services to the Jaffna peninsula.

The latest peace moves comes just days before the secretive chief of the Tamil guerrillas, Velupillai Prabhakarn meets the media for the first time in a decade. He is expected to spell out his position on the peace process.

The first peace talks in seven years will be held between the rebels and the government in Bangkok next month. The government has said it is prepared to consider all demands except that of a separate homeland.

The Tamil guerrillas began their struggle for a separate homeland for the country's ethnic minority Tamil community in 1983.

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