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Sri Lankan Government Matches Rebel Ceasefire Extension - 2002-01-21

Sri Lanka says it is extending a cease-fire with Tamil rebels by a month, until February 24, hours after a similar move by the rebels. The government's announcement has boosted efforts to initiate a peace process with the rebels who have been waging a separatist insurgency since 1983.

The Sri Lankan government said Monday it will match the Tamil Tigers decision to extend the month-long truce that was due to expire later this week.

The rebels had announced a unilateral truce on December 24th, and the government had followed suit. It's the first time in seven years that both sides have observed a ceasefire at the same time.

The Sri Lankan government's decision to extend the truce was announced by the Norwegian government, which is spearheading efforts to broker peace talks between the two sides.

A Sri Lankan foreign ministry official says the extension of the truce will give Norway time to work out a longer ceasefire between the government and the Tamil rebels.

Hopes that a peace process may get underway in the island nation rose after a new government was elected in Sri Lanka last month , pledging to find a political solution to the separatist conflict that has wracked the nation for nearly two decades.

In recent weeks, the government has taken a series of confidence building measures aimed at encouraging the rebels to join peace talks.

The government has eased an economic embargo on rebel held areas in the north, allowing food, medicine and fuel to enter the area for the first time in seven years.

Norwegian officials say there is an increased level of confidence between the two parties, and that conditions exist for both sides to move, step-by-step, toward negotiations. But they have warned that the process will be challenging.

For example, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE says it will not enter peace talks until the government lifts a ban on their organization. The issue is sensitive in a country where many people do not favor any concessions for the rebels. The LTTE is listed as a terrorist organization by several countries including the United States.

The guerrillas have been fighting to establish a separate homeland in the north and the east of the country for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. More than 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict.