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Sri Lanka Peace Talks Open with Positive Statements - 2002-09-16

The first peace talks in seven years between the Sri Lankan governments and Tamil rebels got off to an optimistic start Monday in Thailand, with both sides agreeing to work towards a lasting peace.

The Sri Lankan government and the separatist rebels, the Tamil Tigers, said they would use the three days of talks to find a way to end two decades of civil war, which has devastated the country and left more than 60,000 people dead.

Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, the chief government negotiator, said during opening ceremonies that his government wanted a negotiated settlement of the deadly conflict. He said the Sri Lankan people were weary of war and wanted only peace.

The rebel negotiator, Anton Balasingham, said the Tigers would stop waging war in their bid for an independent state for the Tamils, who form a large ethnic minority in the country. He said he is hoping to turn the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from a rebel group into a mainstream political force.

Although several other negotiation attempts have failed, the new government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has made peace a priority. Sri Lanka's economy is in ruins, and the country can no longer afford to spend a billion dollars a year on the war effort.

The rebels, too, are facing financial and political difficulties. An international ban on contacts with the group, which Washington labeled a terrorist organization in 1997, has hampered international fund-raising activities. The United States has warned the Tigers that if the truce fails, the international war on terror could be extended to include them.

The Sri Lankan government has ruled out an independent state for the Tigers, but has said it is willing to negotiate for wide-ranging autonomy in the northeast, where many of the ethnic Tamils live. The LTTE has been fighting the government since 1983, claiming Tamils are discriminated against by the ethnic majority Sinhalese.

A Norwegian brokered cease-fire has been in effect since February. The rebel negotiator, Mr. Balasingham, said the truce is holding, and life is beginning to return to normal in the war-torn northern and eastern parts of the country.

Norwegian negotiators are attending the talks, which are being held at a secluded naval base southeast of Bangkok.

The peace talks are expected to set the agenda for further peace negotiations, which are scheduled to take place twice monthly. Although officials are optimistic, they warn that it could be months or even years before a final settlement is reached.