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Red Cross: Reconciliation Process Will Help Trace Missing Persons in Sri Lanka - 2003-01-10

The International Committee of the Red Cross says both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels have asked the organization for help in tracking down thousands of people who have disappeared during the country's civil war. The Geneva-based agency says both sides have asked it to set up a new independent tracing system.

The International Committee of the Red Cross calls this a breakthrough.

The Deputy head of ICRC Operations for Central and South Asia, Jean-Luc Metzker, says the agency has been conducting its own tracing of missing persons in Sri Lanka since 1990. But, he believes this work will be enhanced through the cooperation and good will of the government and the Tamil Tigers rebels.

He says this will be an important part of the Sri Lankan reconciliation process.

"For most of the families, the idea is not to know exactly what has happened, but that they have an official confirmation of the death of their loved ones. And, like this, they can go to the end of the mourning process. And, I think that is the most important thing," he said.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting for independence from Sri Lanka for 20 years. Nearly 65,000 people have been killed and more than 1.5 million made homeless.

The rebels and the government signed a cease-fire agreement in February and are continuing to negotiate a lasting peace.

ICRC official Jean-Luc Metzker said since the organization began its tracing work 12 years ago, it has been approached by the families of more than 20,000 civilians and combatants.

Mr. Metzker says some 11,000 tracing requests are still not resolved. And he adds that the Red Cross will continue its tracing work in Sri Lanka until all the families are provided with an answer - a process that is likely to go on for years.