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Sri Lanka Conference Aims to Increase Aid, Attention to Peace Process - 2002-11-24

Senior Sri Lankan officials and representatives of Tamil Tiger rebels attend an international donors conference in Norway on Monday to raise funds for development of the country's war-ravaged northeast. But the inclusion of members of the Tamil guerrilla group at the conference has raised some controversy.

The one day conference in Oslo will focus on gathering international aid for reconstruction projects in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, from where the Tamil guerrillas led their 19 year struggle for a separate Tamil homeland.

Senior representatives from about 20 countries including the United States, Britain and Japan are attending the conference. A four-member team from the Tamil Tiger rebel group will also be present.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who leads his government's delegation says the conference is not only about money.

Officials say they also want to gather international support for the peace initiative that began earlier this year between the government and Tamil Tigers. The government hopes a message of political solidarity from the international community will give momentum to the peace process.

The United States, along with several other countries has branded the Tamil Tigers a terrorist organisation, but has supported the Norwegian effort to broker a settlement of the conflict.

A ceasefire signed in February between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers has mostly held. Since then two more rounds of peace talks have been held in Thailand. Both sides say the talks have progressed well.

But the inclusion of senior rebel leaders at the high profile conference in Norway has been criticised by the political opposition in Sri Lanka, which says the government is helping the guerrilla group gain international legitimacy while they are still banned by many western countries.

The government has rejected the criticism. Constitutional Affairs Minsiter G.L. Peiris said there is nothing inappropriate in including the rebels in a joint appeal for aid because development work in the north and the east cannot be carried out without the involvement of the Tamil Tigers.

Head of Colombo's independent Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, said he agrees with the government's point of view. "There is no escaping the fact that the participation of the Tamil Tigers present at an international conference where you will have major donor nations present at a ministerial level will accord them a certain amount of legitimacy.

But as Minister Peiris has said this is part of the practical reality. "That is legitimacy accorded to the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam} for its participation in the peace process so far," he said.

Political observers also point out that the Tamil Tigers, one of the world's most ruthless guerrilla groups, is apparently making efforts to transform itself into a political organization.

Donors are expected to pledge support for sectors such as resettlement of refugees, agriculture and education in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. But there are fears that the legal ban on the rebels in many countries could hinder the flow of funds to projects managed by the Tigers, and the amounts pledged are likely to be small. The government estimates it needs at least $500 million for infrastructure projects in the region.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesignhe is expected to meet senior Tamil rebel negotiatior Anton Balasingham in Norway. The donors conference will be followed by a third round of peace talks in Oslo in early December.