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Sri Lanka Peace Talks Endure Another Setback - 2003-04-24

In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels are withdrawing from a meeting on humanitarian issues, days after they suspended peace talks with the government. Western countries are urging the rebels to return to the negotiating table.

Peace talks in Sri Lanka endured another setback on Thursday, as Tamil Tigers told the government they will not attend a crucial meeting on development. The meeting had been planned for Friday to discuss immediate humanitarian needs in the country's embattled north and east.

The Tigers want the government to show progress on earlier promises to resettle Tamil refugees and improve living conditions for the minority Tamil community.

Tamil Tigers, who have fought for a separate homeland for nearly two decades, suspended peace negotiations earlier this week, accusing the government of doing little to rebuild war-ravaged infrastructure, despite several rounds of peace talks. They complained the government was attempting to marginalize their role in the peace process.

During the Norwegian-brokered negotiations that began last year, the rebels have agreed to accept political autonomy in the north and east, instead of a separate Tamil homeland.

The government has yet to make a formal response to the latest setback in negotiations with the Tigers. But chief government negotiator Gamini Peiris said Friday that the "door has not been slammed shut on the peace process." He expressed hope that talks will resume "sooner rather than later."

Mr. Peiris says the government is trying to deliver on its promises that Tamils benefit from the peace process. He says the government is ready to go ahead with 18 reconstruction projects identified as "urgent." Troops are preparing to leave several buildings in the north and east, so that refugees can move in.

A political analyst at the Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, points out that the Tigers have said they have no intention of breaking the cease-fire.

"What we have to get used to is that, in any kind of peace process, things are never going to run totally smoothly," he said. "There are going to be instances of this nature. What I want to emphasize is that it is a suspension, rather than an abandonment or jettisoning of the process."

Meanwhile, the United States and France expressed hopes that talks will resume soon, and called on the rebels to return to negotiations. Diplomats say redevelopment work in the north and the east has been slow, but expectations of quick action are unrealistic.

Norwegian mediators say the Tigers are still committed to the truce, despite the latest challenges.