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US Calls for Peace Effort in Sri Lanka - 2002-08-22

A senior U.S. diplomat visiting Sri Lanka has called for peace efforts between the government and Tamil separatists to intensify. Peace-talks between the two sides are scheduled to begin in just a few weeks.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage gave a strong U.S. endorsement to peace efforts in Sri Lanka. He is the most senior U.S. diplomat to visit Sri Lanka since a vicious ethnic conflict began there in 1983.

Mr. Armitage held talks with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and toured the northern Tamil-majority city of Jaffna, where he met with local civilian political leaders and visited a U.S. funded de-mining project.

Mr. Armitage did not meet with any representatives of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers. The group was declared a terrorist organization by the State Department in 1997.

Sunila Abeyesekera heads INFORM, a human rights monitoring group that closely tracks the civil conflict in Sri Lanka. She says Mr. Armitage's visit is a reminder to both sides in the conflict that the international community is closely watching the progress of peace efforts. "At this moment I think the visit by Mr. Armitage will be perceived as an endorsement for the peace process and undoubtedly for the southern government's position, vis ŕ vis the peace process," she said. "It is also a kind of a reminder not only to the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] but also to southern politicians of all parties that this is certainly not a petty within Sri Lanka game, and that everyone who is a player is accountable to the international community."

Last week Sri Lanka's government announced it will lift a ban on the Tamil Tigers imposed after they attacked a Buddhist Shrine in 1998, killing 26 people. The rebels had long called for a removal of the ban as a precondition for talks.

More than 60,000 people have died since Tamil separatists, alleging discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority, launched their drive for a separate state.

Peace efforts began in earnest earlier this year, following the election of Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister last December.

His efforts, mediated by Norwegian diplomats, have been largely opposed by Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga who was nearly assassinated by an alleged Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in late 1999. The two share power in an uneasy coalition government.

Analysts like Sunila Abeyesekera say the peace efforts have also been helped by an international crackdown on funding for the Tamil rebels following the September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States. "9-11 had such a huge impact on the LTTE and on its capacity to continue to work, and in particular, to raise funds abroad," she said. "I think also the government realized that this was an opportunity. I think you can say on both sides September 11th acted as a kind of catalyst to galvanize both sides to take one step further down that road to a dialogue."

The scheduled peace talks, which will take place on a military base near Bangkok, Thailand are expected to be a protracted affair, possibly lasting as long as several years. Sri Lankan government negotiators say they are willing to discuss everything short of a separate homeland for Tamils.