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Talks Open Between Sri Lankan Government, Tamil Rebels - 2003-03-18

The government of Sri Lanka and Tamil Tiger rebels have opened four days of peace talks in Japan aimed at ending one of Asia's longest-running civil wars. The meeting comes nine days after a deadly naval clash between the two sides.

The peace negotiations between Colombo and the Tamil Tigers opened Tuesday in Hakone, a resort town in Japan. The talks, which are the sixth round since September, are focusing on power-sharing, economic recovery and human rights.

But a fatal clash at sea hangs over the discussions. On March 10, Sri Lanka's navy attacked a rebel boat, killing 11 sailors and sinking their vessel, which the navy accused of smuggling arms.

The Tamil Tigers have denied the smuggling allegations and have lashed out at the government for attacking the ship while it was in international waters. The rebels have warned that the clash would have "far-reaching implications," but their chief negotiators insist they will respect the peace process.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the executive director of a Colombo think tank called the Centre for Policy Alternatives, is optimistic about the talks. "Despite what happened on the high seas the talks will continue. The issue here is twofold, one is whether the talks are proceeding according to a well-defined, coherent road map and that there are certain milestones they want to reach in the talks," he said. "And secondly, that whatever agreements are reached, they have to be reflected and realized on the ground."

This round of talks is expected to lay the groundwork for an international donors conference being held in Japan in June. The conference is expected to raise millions of dollars for the impoverished island nation, where civil war has been underway since 1983.

The fighting has killed more than 60,000 people and displaced more than 1.5 million. The rebels started fighting because they wanted a homeland for the Tamil ethnic minority group. Now, however, they say they will agree to autonomy within a federal state.

However, they continue to complain of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese community.