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Norway Cites Political Dispute in Decision to Withdraw from Sri Lankan Peace Process - 2003-11-14

Norwegian peace brokers say they will not take part in negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels until the country's political crisis is resolved. Norway helped the country achieve its longest lasting ceasefire in two-decades of civil war, but now the peace may be threatened.

Norwegian officials say it is not possible to continue peace talks while Sri Lanka's leadership is locked in a political fight and that they will not resume their role until the dispute is over.

Norway's Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen made the comments after a four-day visit to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. His delegation was visiting in hopes of arranging the first face-to-face talks between the government and Tamil Tigers rebels since April.

But the political crisis that erupted last week put negotiations on hold, and raised fears that the peace process is threatened.

Sri Lanka's president Chandrika Kumaratunga took over three government ministries, including the defense ministry, and suspended parliament in a move analysts say was aimed at weakening her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Now that the president is in control of the defense ministry, analysts say it is unclear if the president is in charge of the peace plan or if it remains in the hands of the prime minister.

Given the president's hard-line approach to peace negotiations, her actions are casting doubt on whether the nearly two-year-old cease-fire with Tamil Tiger rebels from will hold. She said Friday that talks should continue in spite of the Norwegian withdrawal.

Shevanthi Jayasuriya is with the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process - the agency handling peace negotiations. She says prior to the political crisis, talks were going well between the government and the Tamil Tigers - called the LTTE.

"The peace process has been going ahead," she said. "The agreement has held for 20 months - this has never happened before in Sri Lanka. And for the first time since the armed conflict started, the LTTE put down in writing and sent a proposal."

The proposal from the Tigers was a five-year plan for self-government in parts of Sri Lanka where there is a majority of ethnic Tamils. It was supposed to be discussed during the next round of negotiations, which is now on hold.

President Kumaratunga has criticized the proposal, which she says amounts to virtual separation of Tamil areas from the rest of Sri Lanka.

More than 60,000 people have died in Sri Lanka's civil war, which broke out in 1983 when the Tamil Tigers revolted against what they say was government repression.

Despite the political crisis, the Tamil Tigers and the government are saying they will abide by the February 2002 cease-fire deal. Norway helped broker that plan, and continues to play a significant role in peace talks.