Accessibility links

Breaking News

Violence Ebbs in Sri Lanka Following Agreement to Hold Talks

In Sri Lanka, violence has declined since the government and Tamil Tiger rebels agreed to hold talks to save a tottering truce.

European monitors supervising Sri Lanka's truce say tensions have eased in the north and east, where a string of attacks in the last two months killed more than 200 people. The attacks had raised fears that the country was sliding back into civil war.

"It seems that violence and killings has dropped significantly in the last few days, and although we want to remain cautious, we still have noticed a trend downward and certainly we have noticed less tension in the surrounding districts," said Helen Olafsdottir, a spokeswoman for the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission in Colombo.

Last week, the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels agreed to meet in Switzerland in February to discuss how to shore up a four-year-old cease-fire.

The government blames the rebels for several recent attacks that killed dozens of soldiers, while the Tigers allege that the government is backing a breakaway rebel faction.

The violence escalated in December, soon after the election of a hard-line president, Mahinda Rajapakse, who turned down the rebels' core demand for an autonomous homeland in the north and east. He pledged to renegotiate the cease-fire agreement. The Tamil Tigers in turn threatened to return to war if the government failed to reach a political settlement.

The rebels have fought for two decades to establish a separate homeland for the ethnic Tamil community. Under the cease-fire deal, they agreed to give up demands for independence in return for greater autonomy from the rest of the mostly Buddhist country.

Rohan Edresignhe at Colombo's Center for Policy Alternatives says everyone in the country has breathed a "collective sigh of relief" as hectic diplomatic efforts have averted a return to hostilities for now. But he warns it will not be easy to bridge the differences between the two sides.

"There are going to be very difficult issues to be resolved, we need to have a sense of perspective and recognize that, in spite this agreement, the gulf between the two sides is very wide," said Edresignhe.

Norwegian truce monitors say peace is crucial ahead of the February talks because it will help build trust between the two sides.

Helen Olafsdottir says both sides need to work on building trust.

"They have to start building their confidence, they have to get used to one another, and they have to start agreeing on things, which has been very difficult so far," she said.

The 2002 truce between the two sides had raised hopes that the country could resolve the conflict, but many fear that salvaging the peace process will not be easy.