The Sri Lankan government and separatist Tamil Tiger rebels have agreed to resume peace talks. But the violence that has rocked the country in recent months continues.
Efforts by peace mediator Norway to bring the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels back to the negotiating table made headway Thursday when the government agreed to meet the rebels for peace talks from October 28 - 30 in Geneva.
Officials announced the decision after a top Norwegian envoy, Jon Hanssen Bauer, met both the rebels and the government. The rebels told him earlier this week that they are willing to hold unconditional talks with the government.
The two sides last met early this year as part of a peace process resulting from a truce brokered in 2002. Since then violence has steadily escalated. A series of clashes and military offensives in the north and east have killed nearly a thousand combatants and civilians since July.
The decision to hold peace talks does not appear to have immediately halted the violence. On Thursday sporadic shelling continued in the north, and defense officials blamed the rebels for killing a soldier with a roadside bomb. Earlier, on Wednesday, air force jets bombed rebel-controlled territory.
Jehan Perera is the head of a Colombo-based peace advocacy group, the National Peace Council. He says talks are needed urgently to prevent the country from slipping into war, but he doubts the commitment of the two sides to serious negotiations.
"We don't see any real developments on the ground in terms of reduction in the violence," Perera said. "At the same time they say they are ready for talks, we see escalated military action, so it is kind of very discouraging…. Given that their strategies appear to be military strategies, given that they have shown no sign of trusting each other and there have been no confidence-building measures by either side, the sincerity of the two parties with regard to talks is very limited."
Analysts say mistrust between the two sides runs high. The Tamil Tigers have warned that they will withdraw from the 2002 ceasefire if attacks by the military continue. The government says it reserves the right to retaliate if the Tigers attack security forces.
The recent surge in fighting has also prompted the government to increase military spending. On Thursday it announced plans to increase defense expenditure in 2007 by nearly 45 percent.
The 2002 ceasefire temporarily ended a two-decade long struggle for an autonomous homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority. A year later, the peace process stalled, but both sides continued to honor the truce. However this year's spiraling violence has raised fears that all-out war may erupt anytime in the country.