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Sri Lanka and Tamil Rebels Move Forward with Peace Talks

Sri Lankan officials and Tamil Tiger rebels say they have made substantial progress on their third day of peace talks in Thailand. The two sides have agreed on security measures and rehabilitating war-raged areas of the country. Top government negotiator G.L. Pieris hailed Saturday's session as a major breakthrough, saying his team and the Tamil Tiger rebels had agreed to begin military de-escalation.

A Norwegian-brokered cease-fire has been in effect since February, but there has been growing tension. Monitors have cited truce violations on both sides but nothing serious enough to de-rail the peace talks yet.

The four-day talks in Thailand are the second round of peace negotiations between the government and rebels since February. Mr. Pieris says the two sides have agreed to establish a 19-member panel, headed by a minority Tamil, to hammer out problems hindering the truce. The panel will oversee dismantling military camps put up on private and public lands and also address de-mining. Clearing mines is crucial to allow more than 1.5 million displaced people return to their homes after 19 years of civil war.

The panel is to meet later this month to identify key projects for reconstruction before an international donors conference for Sri Lanka meets in Oslo, Norway. Mr. Peiris says it is imperative to give donors clear suggestions about the kinds of programs and funds that will be needed to help the country recover from the war that has cost nearly 65,000 lives.

The Tamil Tigers dropped their bid for a separate state during the first round of talks in September and instead said they would be open to autonomy and self-government.

The talks end Sunday when both sides will hold a news conference where more details of their negotiations will be announced.

The talks have not been hindered by this week's sentencing of top rebel leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran. A Sri Lankan court handed down a 200-year prison term in absentia for the rebel leader's role in a 1996 suicide bombing in Colombo. Friday, the Tamil's chief negotiator here in Thailand, Anton Balasingham, lodged a protest over the case but did not walk out of talks.

Political analyst Sanjay Gathia from Asia Forum says it is still too early to speculate how the sentencing would affect the peace process, which is expected to take years. "What kind of arrangement the government and the LTTE reach on later on, whether they would go for amnesty for Prabhakaran in all respects to really leave a clear message that it is very much concerned about how they can get the Tamil Tigers to really give up arms," Mr. Gathia said. "Right now it's quite speculative to say that will it affect or won't it effect because it all depends upon what step the government from it's side will take."

The rebels have been fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils, saying they are discriminated against by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority.