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Sri Lanka Presidential Candidates Divided on Peace Talks' Future

In Sri Lanka, the two leading candidates for the post of president in Thursday's election say they are committed to ending decades of conflict with the separatist Tamil Tiger guerrilla group. They offer profoundly different approaches as to how that should be done.

Thursday's election pits opposition leader , a proponent of a 2002 peace agreement with the Tamil Tigers, against Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, who says it is time for a fresh approach to peace talks.

The Tamil Tiger rebels have waged a violent 19-year campaign against the government, originally seeking independence for areas of Sri Lanka where the ethnic Tamil minority is predominant. More than 60,000 people have died in the conflict.

In 2002, in peace talks facilitated by Norwegian peace mediators, the rebels gave up their demand for an independent state. They agreed instead to a new federalist form of government that would give them greater authority in the Tamil areas. Mr. Wickremesinghe was prime minister at the time of those talks.

The peace process stalled in November 2003, when the rebels demanded the immediate right to self-government.

Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a peace-advocacy group, says Mr. Wickremesinghe wants to stick with the 2002 agreement and build from there.

"The leader of the opposition, Mr. Wickremesinghe, says that he will take the peace process forward from the point that it stopped in November 2003," said Jehan Perera.

Critics of Mr. Wickremesinghe say he conceded too much to the rebels. Prime Minister Rajapakse says if he is elected president, he will meet with the Tamil Tiger leadership to propose a fresh approach to peace talks - one that apparently scraps the Norwegian-facilitated plan altogether.

"This fresh approach, he has not spelled it out in detail, but some of the principals he has outlined suggest that it is going back, a reversion to the pre-1995 position held by his own party, which is that Sri Lanka should remain a tightly centralized unitary state," said Mr. Perera.

No matter which candidate wins, Mr. Perera says, he will have to form new parliamentary alliances to make his peace plan a reality.

The Tamil Tigers have withheld formal support for either candidate. But according to the rebels' web page, some little known ethnic Tamil groups have called for a boycott of the ballot, to demonstrate that Tamils do not recognize the right of Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese community to rule them.

The Tamil groups quoted, however, may simply be a front for the rebels themselves.