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Sri Lanka Hopes to Enlist India's Help In Peace Process - 2001-12-22

Sri Lanka's new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is beginning a three day visit in India Saturday.

The visit comes amid rising hopes that a peace process may unfold in the island nation, where Tamil rebels have been waging a separatist insurgency since 1983.

Sri Lanka's state radio says Prime Minister Wickremesinghe aims to enlist India's support for the latest peace efforts in his country.

The Sri Lankan government has said it will reciprocate a month-long cease-fire announced by Tamil rebels to begin on Christmas eve.

The government's gesture has raised hopes that the Tamil rebels and the government may begin peace talks. The newly-elected prime minister has promised negotiations with the guerrillas, who have been banned as a terrorist group by several countries, including the United States and India.

The government has also announced that it is lifting an economic embargo imposed on rebel-held territory in the northeast. In a statement, the government says it will take immediate steps to improve living conditions in these areas. The rebels had called for an end to the economic embargo, while announcing their truce.

The Tamil Tigers are said to view Mr. Wickremsinghe's government as more acceptable than the previous one - which had moved towards a military offensive against them.

Most countries have welcomed the government's move in trying to forge peace. Analysts say the atmosphere for peace seems favorable, but warn that a similar cease-fire announced by the Tamil rebels late last year eventually collapsed, amid renewed fighting between the rebels and government troops.

They also point out that efforts by Norway to start negotiations between the rebels and the government have not made headway.

During his Indian visit, the Sri Lankan prime minister is expected to seek greater involvement of New Delhi in bringing about a solution to the ethnic conflict.

India is not directly involved in the conflict, although it tried to broker an agreement between the rebels and the government in the late 1980s. But after that collapsed, New Delhi has steered clear of the ethnic conflict.

The Tamil Tigers are fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of the country. The 18-year war has killed more than 60,000 people.