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Sri Lanka Lifts Rebel Embargo - 2002-01-15

The Sri Lankan government has lifted an economic embargo in areas held by Tamil Tiger rebels, in the north of the country. The step is expected to clear the way for a peace process in the island nation, where Tamil rebels have been waging a separatist insurgency since 1983.

Hundreds of Tamil civilians cheered as the first convoy of trucks loaded with food and fuel headed early Tuesday to areas north of Vavuniya, which is the last government-held town in the north.

The economic embargo has been in effect since 1994 in the rebel-held Wanni area - a stretch of jungle, hamlets and small towns that is home to about 400,000 Tamil civilians. Only a restricted quantity of essential goods was allowed into the area.

Economic Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda says the relaxation of the economic embargo is among confidence-building measures the government has initiated to draw the Tamil rebels into a peace process. Lifting of the embargo was a key rebel pre-condition for opening talks with the government.

In addition ending the economic embargo, the government has taken other steps to boost the peace process. Restrictions on Tamil fishermen have been eased, allowing them to remain at sea for longer hours. Residents of Vavuniya, who are mostly Tamils, will be given easier access to passes to enter or leave the town.

Peace efforts gained momentum in Sri Lanka after last month's election of a new government. Soon after assuming office, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe promised negotiations with the guerrillas. Both sides have been observing a month-long ceasefire since December 24.

Since then, both sides have held separate talks with Norwegian mediators trying to broker a lasting truce. Norwegian officials say they are trying to clear the way for a permanent ceasefire. They have expressed cautious optimism about the possibility of peace talks between the government and the rebels.

There have been several previous attempts for negotiation since the conflict began, two decades ago. All were unsuccessful.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are fighting for an independent homeland in the north and the east of the country. The rebels say the Tamils, who are an ethnic minority, are discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese community. The guerrilla warfare has claimed more than 60,000 lives.