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Norwegian FM Trying to Restart Sri Lanka Peace Process - 2004-05-10

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen is visiting Sri Lanka to push efforts to restart a peace process between the government and Tamil rebels. The Sri Lankan government says it remains committed to ending the island's long ethnic conflict.

A presidential spokesman says Sri Lanka's commitment to holding peace talks is strong.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen arrived to meet with both President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Tamil rebels. He hopes to find ways to kick-start negotiations that have been stalled for more than a year.

Norwegian mediators left Sri Lanka six-months ago, after political rivalry between the president and prime minister made it difficult to continue their efforts. Last month, the president's party won parliamentary elections, ousted the prime minister, and invited the Norwegians back.

Mr. Petersen's delegation is the second Norwegian team to visit Sri Lanka in the past two weeks.

Rohan Edresinghe is a political analyst with Colombo's Center for Policy Alternatives. He said that despite the efforts to restart negotiations, concern remains that the president's hard-line allies could prove to be a stumbling block in establishing peace. "Some of the major actors in the international community are doing their best to get the peace process to start again, but I think there are still enormous challenges within the government that have to be sorted out before these talks can start," he said.

The new government is trying to address some of those challenges. A day before Mr. Petersen's visit, it agreed to recognize the Tamil Tigers as the sole representatives of the island's Tamil minority.

The government said it was doing this in response to "political and ground" realities. It was a reversal for the president's party, which had earlier said it wanted talks to include the Tamil Tigers and other Tamil parties.

The Norwegian mediators also are expected to discuss a series of minor clashes in the past two weeks that have led to the deaths of 12 people, including a government soldier and several rebels. The Tamil Tigers say government troops were involved in the deaths of the rebels, and warn this could jeopardize the peace process.

Although peace talks are deadlocked, the two-year cease-fire mediated by Norway has mostly held.

The Tamil Tigers fought for two decades for a separate homeland for the minority Tamil community, but have agreed to give up their struggle in exchange for wide-ranging autonomy in the Tamil-dominated north and east.