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Sri Lanka, Tamil Rebels to Begin Landmark Peace Talks

The Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels open landmark peace talks in Thailand on Monday. The talks are seen as the best chance yet to end an ethnic conflict that has raged for nearly two decades.

The three-day talks are being held at a naval base in eastern Thailand for security reasons. They are the first direct negotiations between the Tamil rebels and the Sri Lankan government in seven years.

The 19-year guerrilla struggle for a separate homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority has been fierce and bloody. It has claimed more than 60,000 lives, displaced nearly one million people, devastated the island's northern region and hurt the nation's economy.

But the guns have fallen silent since February this year, when Norway brokered a truce between the two sides, paving the way for a peace process.

Eight months on, as the talks are set to begin, all sides are cautioning against high expectations. Norwegian mediators have warned of "many hurdles ahead." The Sri Lankan government says it will leave no stone unturned in the search for peace, but there are "no quick-fix solutions".

Mr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu heads the independent Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. He says the talks are expected to be a protracted affair - lasting years rather than months, if all goes well. But he says the peace process is backed by enormous public goodwill in the war-weary island.

"It is largely a desire for a situation of no-war," he said. "They want the conflict to end, they want the war to end, they recognize that there is no military solution that is available quickly, cheaply, easily, and therefore they recognize that the two sides have to talk."

Negotiators have a limited goal at the first round of talks: discussions on reconstruction of the devastated north and setting an agenda for future talks. The discussions are expected to be held every three weeks.

With so many grievances accumulated on both sides over the years, observers say the negotiations are likely to be difficult. The Tamil guerrillas waged their struggle complaining of discrimination by the Sinhala majority and have not publicly abandoned their demand for a separate state. The government says it is prepared to discuss anything except the division of the country.

The rebels are prepared to be as tough at the negotiating table as they have been in the battlefield. The government is already under attack by Sinhala nationalists and Buddhist groups for giving too much to the guerrillas and needs deft political management to prevent intensifying opposition as it considers concessions to the rebels.

Mr. Saravanamuttu says there is a mood of cautious optimism, but also an awareness that all previous peace bids have collapsed.

"There are decades of mistrust and suspicion that have to be overcome. There is a whole new constitutional architecture that has to be designed as well. So it is quite a large challenge," he said.

But hopes are high that the civil war could be heading toward a solution. The international crackdown on funding for terrorist groups following the September 11 attacks on the United States helped push the Tamil rebels towards the peace table. The government has its own reasons for talking peace. The economy is buckling under the pressure of enormous defense spending and the war has devastated tourism and driven foreign investment away. Political analysts say all this has made the stakes higher than ever before for both sides in their search for peace.