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Sri Lanka Peace Talks End With Rebel Concession - 2002-09-18

The Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels have wrapped up three days of peace talks in Thailand, with the rebels saying they may accept autonomy instead of their long-held goal of independence. The two sides also agreed to series of negotiations and to work together to resettle displaced people.

These talks have gone better than most people had expected. Sri Lanka's chief negotiator, G.L. Peiris says he is extremely pleased with the fact that real progress has been made.

"We have to understand each other's anxieties and concerns and we have to be sensitive to the problems of the other side," he said.

The most significant result of the talks has come from the Tamil Tiger rebels, who conceded they may be willing to give up their 20 year goal of independence. Chief rebel negotiator, Anton Balasingham, said that they would seek self-determination.

However, he ruled out disarmament until a permanent peace deal has been reached.

Both sides also agreed to a series of future talks in October, December and January as well as a joint task force on reconstructing of war-torn areas, mine clearing and resettling displaced people.

This is the first time in seven years the two sides have engaged in direct negotiations.

Norwegian mediators have been instrumental in getting the rebels and Sri Lankan officials to sit down together. A Norwegian-brokered truce in February has been holding.

Norway's Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen told reporters here in Thailand there is now a chance for long-term peace.

"The parties affirmed their determination to continue upholding the ceasefire agreement and expanding the range of confidence-building measures over the period ahead," he announced.

The aim is to end a 19-year civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 60,000 people and displaced more than a million Sri Lankans.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state in the north and east saying they are being discriminated against by the country's Sinhalese majority.