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Norwegian Envoy to Begin Sri Lanka Peace Talks - 2002-10-20

A Norwegian envoy has arrived in Sri Lanka to prepare for the next round of peace talks scheduled to take place between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels at the end of the month. The Norwegian-brokered peace process is the most significant effort to end the Tamil separatist insurgency that erupted in 1983.

Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen will meet top government officials and hold his first-ever meeting with the reclusive Tamil rebel leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, during his five-day visit.

Norway is playing a key role in the peace process that began earlier this year between the Tamil rebels and the government. A Norwegian-brokered cease-fire in February paved the way for the first round of peace talks in Thailand last month, where both sides expressed a strong commitment to reaching a negotiated settlement. The next round of talks takes place at the end of this month.

Mr. Helgesen's visit will focus on establishing a joint task force for development and humanitarian work in the north and east of the island, which have been devastated by the nearly two decade long civil war in the country.

The Norwegian official is expected to assess the development needs of these areas. Both the rebels and the government have appealed for international aid to reconstruct the region, where infrastructure has been almost completely destroyed by the civil war.

Mr. Helgesen will meet both Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe and President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who have strong differences on how to handle the peace process. Political analysts have expressed fears their political differences could cast a shadow on the peace process.

Also on the agenda will be recent cease-fire violations in the east of the country where several Tamils were killed during a clash with government forces last week. It was the bloodiest skirmish since both sides signed a truce -- but Norwegian officials have expressed hope that the recent skirmishes will not jeopardize the peace process.

Mr. Helgesen's visit comes days after the arrival in Sri Lanka of the Tamils' chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham. He came for talks with rebel leader, Mr. Prabhakaran. Mr. Balasingham is based in London, and has seldom visited Sri Lanka. During this visit, he passed through Colombo airport - the highest level Tamil official to do so in more than a decade. Analysts saw this as a sign of the growing confidence between the two sides.

Nearly two decades ago, the Tamil Tiger rebels launched their struggle for a separate homeland, in the north and east of the country, for the minority Tamil community. The government says it is willing to discuss all issues except the division of the country; the Tamil rebels have indicated they will be willing to settle for autonomy.