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US Official Urges Sri Lanka, Tamil Rebels to Negotiate Lasting Peace - 2002-03-16

A senior American official has urged the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels to negotiate a lasting peace during a visit to the nation. The United States has also signaled that it is strongly backing efforts to end the two-decade long Tamil ethnic conflict in the island nation.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Christina Rocca, told a news conference in Colombo, that both sides should move toward negotiations to reach a peace deal.

The government and Tamil rebels signed an indefinite ceasefire last month, and peace talks are expected to begin in June. Ms. Rocca called this is "a real opportunity to reach a settlement."

Ms. Rocca came to Colombo on Saturday after visiting the northern Jaffna region, the Tamil heartland from where guerrillas have waged their armed struggle for a separate homeland for the minority Tamil community.

In Jaffna Ms. Rocca had joined Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who concluded a landmark visit to the region on Friday.

Along with Mr. Wickremesinghe she toured Chavakachcheri, one of the most devastated towns in the region that has borne the brunt of the fighting in the last two decades. She said the impact of the war on the region was "horrific."

Ms. Rocca's visit to Sri Lanka is seen as a clear signal that the United States is taking a higher profile in the country's peace process.

Earlier this week, the U.S. government had warned the Tamil rebels to stick with the peace process, or face international isolation. The Tamil Tigers have been banned by the United States, but American officials say they could get legal recognition if they give up violence.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's visit to Jaffna has also underlined that there is wide support for the peace process. He was enthusiastically welcomed by the local Tamil community, which hailed him as a "peacemaker". He came to power in December on a mandate to end the island's civil war, and is the first prime minister to visit the region since the conflict began.

Jaffna, a Tamil majority region, was controlled by guerrillas since the civil war erupted until government troops wrested it back in 1995.

There are widespread hopes that the peace process will lead to a settlement, but also some worries because similar efforts in the past have collapsed.

Analysts point out that the most difficult part of the negotiations are yet to come, discussions on autonomy for the north and the east, which the Tamil rebels want as a separate homeland.