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Sri Lanka to Work on 'Normalizing' Situation in Rebel-Held Territories - 2002-11-10

In Sri Lanka, representatives of the government and Tamil Tiger rebels have met to discuss how to normalize the situation in the war-ravaged north and east. Both sides are stepping up contacts following two rounds of peace talks in Thailand.

The head of the government's negotiating team, Defense Secretary Austin Fernando, met Tamil rebel commander V. Karuna in the neutral territory of Omanthai, about 250 kilometers north of the capital, Colombo.

They face a challenging task of returning war-ravaged areas of the north and east to normal, so that tens of thousands of refugees, displaced by the nearly two decade long civil war, can safely return to the territory.

Thousands of refugees have already started trickling back since the government and Tamil Tiger rebels declared a cease-fire in February, and embarked on a peace process.

But it has been difficult to find land to resettle the refugees, because government troops still occupy large areas. Land mines are also a problem. International teams of de-miners are helping clear land for resettlement, but the work is expected to take years.

Defense Secretary Fernando said, withdrawal of government troops will be discussed, keeping in mind security concerns.

At the peace talks in Thailand, government and Tamil negotiators have given top priority to humanitarian issues and rebuilding the war-ravaged areas.

Later this month, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and chief Tamil Tiger negotiator Anton Balansingham will attend a donors conference in Norway to raise funds for development of the north and the east, where the infrastructure has been virtually destroyed by the civil war.

Meanwhile, progress is also being made in the search for a political solution to the separatist conflict. Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris has said he will soon establish direct contact with Mr. Balasingham to begin negotiations on political issues.

The government has said it is willing to consider a solution that will involve considerable autonomy for the north and east.

At the second round of peace talks which concluded in Thailand earlier this month, the Tamil rebels indicated they are willing to discuss a power sharing arrangement.

Political observers say they are satisfied with the pace of progress at the talks, which are seen as the best chance yet of settling one of Asia's longest-running conflicts. Tamil Tiger rebels launched their guerrilla struggle for a separate homeland for the Tamil community in 1983.