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Sri Lanka Uneasy as Rebels Suspend Peace Talks - 2003-04-22


In Sri Lanka, security has been stepped up after the Tamil rebels suspended peace talks with the government. The rebels have urged the government to restore confidence in the peace process, which began last year in an effort to end the nation's ethnic conflict. President Chandrika Kumaratunga convened an emergency meeting of military officers and ordered the armed forces on alert within hours after the rebels said they were suspending participation in peace negotiations.

A statement from the president's office said the reasons the rebels give for halting the talks are "feeble." It expressed hope that "better sense will prevail," and they will re-enter the peace dialogue.

The rebels say they remain committed to negotiations and have given no signs that they intend to resume hostilities. The president's decision to put troops on alert re-instates security measures imposed in 1995 after earlier talks had failed and fierce fighting resumed.

The rebels temporarily backed out of talks after accusing the government of failing to improve living conditions for Tamils in the north and the east. Those areas have been shattered by the war the rebels have waged for two decades to establish a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.

They are also protesting their exclusion from a donor meeting held last week in Washington. The rebels were not invited because they are listed as a terrorist organization by the United States.

But the mood in Colombo is not unduly pessimistic. In a brief reply to the rebels, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe expressed satisfaction that the rebels remain committed to a negotiated political solution. He says he will respond to the Tamil charges.

A political analyst at Colombo's Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, said the rebel move does not end the peace process. He said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, as the rebels are called, have left the door open to resume negotiations.

"It is a suspension rather than an abandonment or jettisoning of the process. The LTTE reiterates its commitment to a negotiated solution, and refers to various outstanding issues, so it is not by any stretch of imagination a letter that indicates that the LTTE is turning its back on the peace process. What it is pointing out to is certain outstanding problems that would need to be resolved," he said.

Norwegian negotiators who mediated the truce have begun hectic behind-the-scenes moves to put the peace process back on track.

Tamil rebels had agreed to accept political autonomy in the north and east, and give up their demand for a separate homeland. The seventh round of peace talks was to be held in Thailand next week.

Four previous bids to make peace have collapsed since hostilities erupted in 1983. But there was widespread hope that the Norwegian-mediated peace process could end the civil war in the island nation.