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Sri Lanka's President Urges Tsunami Aid Deal with Tamil Rebels

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga has vowed to reach a deal with Tamil rebels on distribution of tsunami aid, despite stiff opposition from her coalition partners. Rebel-held areas in the north and east of the country were among the regions devastated by the December 26 tsunami.

President Chandrika says she will press ahead with efforts to establish a "joint mechanism" for aid distribution with Tamil rebels, even at the risk of bringing down her government.

The government says such a mechanism will enable it to coordinate efforts with the guerrillas on rebuilding rebel-held areas that were flattened by the December 26 tsunami. The rebels complain that their areas have not received a fair share of post-tsunami aid.

The president's People's Alliance runs the government with the support of the People's Liberation Front, which has threatened to abandon the coalition, and possibly bring down the government, if such a deal is reached. They say it would provide legitimacy to the rebels, and pave the way for them to consolidate their rule in the North and East of the country.

But the president says she sees the deal as an opportunity to bring lasting peace to the country.

The Tamil rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also called the LTTE, signed a ceasefire with the government three-years ago, raising hopes of ending a two-decade-long civil conflict. But peace talks have been deadlocked for more than two years.

Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council in Colombo says the president feels the proposed "joint mechanism" could signal the revival of the peace process.

"The joint mechanism is significant in respect of providing both the government and the LTTE with another opportunity to engage with one another, to dialogue with one another, to work with one another," he said. "They have not been doing that for the past two years."

But he questions whether Mrs. Kumaratunga is really ready to sacrifice the government.

"The President is making very determined, very resolute speeches, but we are still not sure whether she will actually take the plunge and go ahead to sign this agreement, risking the stability of her government," said Mr. Perera.

Mrs. Kumaratunga says the aid-sharing deal will help bring the rebels back to the negotiating table. In addition to addressing rebel complaints about lack of aid, it will make it easier for foreign aid donors to distribute relief directly to rebel-held areas.

The rebels have said a mechanism for aid distribution must be in place before they consider wider peace talks with the government.

Mr. Perera says it appears unlikely an aid-sharing deal could be reached before an aid donors meeting later this month.

The long-running rebellion was launched to combat complaints of discrimination against the Tamil minority by the Sinhalese, who form the majority in Sri Lanka.