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Hopes Raised for Reviving Stalled Sri Lankan Peace Talks - 2003-04-30

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister has asked the rebel Tamil Tigers to reconsider their decision to suspend peace talks with the government. Efforts to revive the talks have raised hopes of ending the two-decade-long ethnic conflict on the island nation.

In a five-page letter, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe urged the Tamil Tiger rebels to revive their partnership with the government.

He said 14 months of truce and six rounds of peace talks have achieved considerable success, and have brought hopes of ending the island's civil war. Among other things, the rebels have agreed to drop their demand for an independent homeland, for which they began fighting in 1983, and to accept autonomy instead.

Norwegian mediators carried the prime minister's letter to the rebels, who halted negotiations last week. The rebels say the government has done little to improve conditions in war shattered areas in the north and the east of the country, or to resettle hundreds-of-thousands of ethnic Tamil refugees.

The government has taken steps to address rebel concerns. It says it is moving several army camps out of civilian areas in the northern Jaffna peninsula, the focal point of the rebel struggle. The army is presently occupying schools, public buildings and even private homes in Jaffna. The rebels want the soldiers out so that refugees can be resettled there.

The Prime Minister acknowledged delays in rebuilding the affected areas, but he said such things are bound to take time, and he said slow progress is no reason to stop the talks. He appealed to the rebels not to pull out of a key donors' conference that Japan is holding in June.

Fears have been expressed that a suspension of the talks could stall efforts to raise millions of dollars in international reconstruction aid.

In Colombo, chief government negotiator Gamini Peiris expressed optimism, telling reporters that the deadlock had been broken. His comments followed hectic political and diplomatic efforts in recent days to revive the talks.

The Director of Colombo's independent Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu said there is optimism that the talks can be put back on track, but also a recognition that the process may not be easy. "The further down the road you go, the more complicated, complex, and substantive the issues are going to be. And therefore, invariably there is going to be a lot of discussion, interaction, hard talk, bargaining, etc. This is not something that can be done easily or quickly," he said.

Norway's deputy foreign minister and Japan's special envoy to Sri Lanka are due to visit Colombo in several days to help move the process forward. The London-based chief rebel negotiator, Anton Balasingham, is expected in the country at the same time. Japan and Norway are playing an active role in the peace process.