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Rebels Call Snap Elections 'Grave Setback' to Sri Lanka Peace Process - 2004-02-09

Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebel group has called snap parliamentary elections planned for April a "grave setback" to the country's peace process. Many in Sri Lanka view the decision to call elections as a threat to efforts to end a long guerrilla war.

A spokesman for the Tamil Tigers says the rebels will continue to abide by a two-year-old cease-fire with the government. On a pro-Tamil Web site, the spokesman also charges that political leaders in the capital lack the will to bring peace to Sri Lanka.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga called for snap elections to take place April 2 after she dissolved Parliament late Saturday. The move is seen as an attempt to end the political deadlock with her main rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The two leaders are split over how to handle peace negotiations with the Tamil Tigers, who have waged a 20-year campaign of violence for greater rights for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority.

Ms. Kumaratunga plunged the nation into crisis in November, when she took over three government ministries. They included the Defense Ministry, which worked with Mr. Wickremesinghe to forge a cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers two years ago.

The president's call for elections has renewed fears that the peace process could collapse. On Monday, rattled investors dumped shares on the Sri Lanka stock market, sending the main index down 10 percent.

A member of a peace advocacy group in Colombo says neither the rebels nor the government want fighting to resume. "Going back to war would bring so many disadvantages to both sides, I think that they will try to avoid it," says Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council,

Ms. Kumaratunga's party, the People's Alliance, takes a hard-line approach to the rebels. Mr. Perera warns that there must be some give and take for the peace process to continue.

"The problem is that to sustain a cease-fire also you need certain positive things happening," he said. "And if the Alliance wins the election may be we won't see those positive things happening, which would make sustaining the cease-fire that much harder."

The peace process, brokered by Norway, has been stalled for nearly a year. The rebels warn that war could resume if the political crisis in Colombo is not resolved. More than 60,000 people have died in the fighting.

Parliamentary elections could have been delayed until 2007. The president hopes to take control of Parliament away from the prime minister's party, which holds the majority of seats. The April vote does not affect the president, who is elected in a separate poll.