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US Convenes Sri Lanka Peace Conference - 2003-04-14

The United States Monday convened an international conference aimed at reinforcing the peace process in Sri Lanka. The meeting was hosted by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who called on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE, to unequivocally renounce terrorism, in order to play a full role in talks on the country's future.

The meeting brought together Sri Lankan officials and representatives from some 25 other countries and 16 international organizations. But notable in their absence were officials of the LTTE, whose members are barred from entering the United States because the organization is on the U.S. government's list of terrorist organizations.

The rebel organization has been furious about its exclusion from the meeting, accusing the United States of insincerity in supporting the country's peace process, and threatening to boycott a broader international donor's meeting for Sri Lanka in Tokyo in June.

In his keynote address to the gathering, Deputy Secretary of State Armitage acknowledged the Tamil Tigers' unhappiness, but said the State Department had to abide by the law, and deny the group's members visas for entry into the United States.

At the same time, he cited the Tamil Tigers' role in the cease-fire that has prevailed in the country for more than a year, and concessions both the LTTE and the government have made in peace talks thus far. He said the United States can see a legitimate role for the group, provided it makes a clean break with terrorism.

"While it is safe to say that the United States is encouraged by the recent behavior of the LTTE, we do not yet see a rationale for lifting the designation as a foreign terrorism organization. Our position is crystal-clear. The LTTE must unequivocally renounce terrorism, in word and in deed, if we are to consider withdrawing the designation. I think it is fair to say, with the way the current negotiations are going, that the United States can see a future for the LTTE as a legitimate political organization. But it is still up to the LTTE to change this situation."

The audience included, among others, senior officials of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, in Washington for the organizations' annual meeting. And Mr. Armitage stressed the need for international financial aid to help Sri Lanka overcome the effects of nearly 20 years of civil conflict, which he said have left parts of the country "nearly as desolate as a moonscape."

He said the success of the Sri Lankan peace process will largely depend on the political will of the government and the LTTE, but that some goals, including economic reform, may be "simply beyond" the country's means, without international moral and material support.

Sri Lankan Cabinet Minister Milinda Moragoda told the gathering, the current peace talks, brokered by Norway, could be a last chance to draw the country "back from the brink."

He said potential donors should not withhold assistance pending a final peace accord, saying if the two sides are unable to deliver at least a preliminary "peace dividend" to their supporters now, the talks could break down, and hostilities might resume.