Sri Lanka's government and Tamil Tiger rebels have agreed to hold new talks in Switzerland aimed at shoring up their deteriorating peace agreement. Norwegian peace broker Eric Solheim announced the agreement after a meeting with the rebels' leader.
Officials say these talks, slated for next month, have a limited but important goal - ending the spate of cease-fire violations that has left more than 150 Sri Lankans dead in recent weeks. Only after hostilities cease will attention be turned to the core issues that divide Sri Lanka's government and its ethnic Tamil rebels.
Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, a Colombo-based advocacy group, says ending the bloody cease-fire violations is a vital first step. The violence has stopped short of a return to all-out war, he says, but is still affecting the country seriously.
"The increased violence is what has led to people dying, rising tension, cordon-and-search operations that are making life a misery for civilians, led to tourists not coming. Investors also postponing their business decisions," said Perera.
Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim announced the decision to hold the talks in Geneva, Switzerland, after meeting with Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakharan Wednesday in the rebel-held town of Kilinochchi. The simple question of where to hold the talks had become a source of contention in recent months.
Mr. Solheim helped broker the 2002 peace accord between the government and the rebels, after nearly two decades of conflict. But the peace process quickly became deadlocked, and the two sides have not met face to face since 2003.
The rebels originally demanded independence for the north and east of Sri Lanka, where the ethnic Tamil minority is predominant. Later, they downgraded their demand, agreeing to increased autonomy in those areas. But the two sides could not find common ground on the issue of power-sharing.
A Tamil Tiger spokesman says the rebels will halt all military activities ahead of talks, and has called on the government to do the same.
Some observers, including senior U.S. officials, blame the rebels for the bulk of the cease-fire violations. The rebels claim that the recent attacks have been carried out by paramilitary organizations linked to the government.