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Political Stability Needed, Before Talks Can Resume, say Tamil Rebels - 2003-11-13


In Sri Lanka, Tamil rebels say political stability is needed before peace talks can continue, but say they remain committed to a peace process and will not return to war. A political crisis has raised concerns that the peace process begun last year might be endangered.

Tamil rebel leaders say they will continue to honor their 21-month-old ceasefire with the Sri Lankan government, but have asked Norwegian mediators to guarantee that the government complies with the truce.

Top guerrilla leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran made the request after meeting with Norwegian negotiators at a secret location near the rebel-held town of Killinochi. Mr. Prabhakaran rarely meets outsiders. Norway helped Sri Lanka lay the ground rules for the ceasefire and is working to keep discussions going.

But the political standoff pitting the country's president and prime minister against each other is threatening to disrupt the peace process. The political crisis erupted last week due to sharp differences between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe about the peace process. The president took charge of the defense, security and media ministries after accusing the prime minister of ceding too much to the rebels.

The rebels want to resume peace negotiations as soon as possible, but say it is not possible until the president and the prime minister resolve their dispute.

Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen told reporters that the rebels want to know who is in charge. Until last week, the prime minister was handling the peace process, but he says he cannot take responsibility for peace talks under the present circumstances.

Political analyst Jehan Perera with the National Peace Council says the political crisis has created confusion about who will lead the peace process.

"Whom are they [the rebels] going to talk to, the prime minister is saying if the president takes over defense she might as well take over the entire peace process," he said. "And the president is saying 'Well, she does not want to take over the entire peace process.' I think Norwegian facilitators are facing the same problem. Who is in charge of the peace process now?"

The president and the prime minister are expected to talk again next week after a meeting Wednesday failed to resolve their differences.

The cease-fire with the rebels has been in place since February last year, bringing the country its longest spell of peace since rebels began their bloody separatist struggle two decades ago.

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