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Newly Elected Sri Lankan President Promises to Pursue Peace

Sri Lanka's newly elected president has promised to pursue peace with the separatist Tamil Tiger guerrilla group. Speaking at his inauguration Saturday, Mahinda Rajapakse pledged he would not allow his country to become divided.

Mahinda Rajapakse says he intends to make good on his campaign promise to reopen stalled talks with the Tamil rebels - also known as the L.T.T.E.

He says when the L.T.T.E. say they are ready to return to peace negotiations, we will start talks with them.

Mr. Rajapakse made the promise in his inaugural address Saturday - a day after officials confirmed he won the November 17 presidential election by a margin of less than two percent over his rival, opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Mr. Rajapakse is known for his tough stance against the rebels, who waged a bloody 19-year campaign for independence for the ethnic-Tamil minority in the east and north of the country. More than 60,000 people have died in the conflict.

A truce was declared in 2002 when opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was prime minister. Several rounds of peace talks resulted in the rebels accepting greater autonomy instead of independence for Tamil areas in the predominantly Singhalese country.

But peace talks stalled in 2003 - when the rebels demanded the immediate right to self-govern.

President Rajapakse said Sri Lanka unity is his priority. He says the government will solve the ethnic problem without dividing the country - as promised in his campaign to the voters who elected him.

Following last year's Indian Ocean tsunami - which killed 30,000 people in Sri Lanka alone - hopes were raised that the humanitarian crisis would foster a new sense of cooperation between the government and rebels. Instead they argued over dividing the aid and how to distribute it.

On Saturday, Mr. Rajapakse said he would come up with a new institution to handle the contentious tsunami aid issue - but he did not go into detail.