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EU Official Patten Met by Protests in Sri Lanka - 2003-11-25

In Sri Lanka, European Union External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten faced protesters as he arrived for a two-day visit to help restore momentum to stalled peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels.

Hundreds of Sinhalese nationalists staged noisy demonstrations and burned the effigy of EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten outside his hotel in the capital, Colombo.

The protesters are angered by Mr. Patten's plans to visit Tamil guerrilla leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran in the rebel-held north on Wednesday. The visit coincides with Mr. Prabhakaran's 49th birthday.

The Patriotic National Movement, which led the protests, says Mr. Patten's meeting with Mr. Prabhakaran amounts to attending his birthday party. The country's Island newspaper says the visit would be seen as an honor to the rebel leader, and gives him legitimacy.

The European Union has strongly supported Sri Lanka's efforts to end two decades of ethnic conflict. A member country, Norway, has served as a mediator between Tamil rebels and the government. But earlier this month, the peace process stalled after a fierce power struggle between the president and prime minister.

Mr. Patten says he has come to Sri Lanka to see for himself if there is a chance for a speedy resolution to the impasse between the rebels and the government. He has held a meeting with President Chandrika Kumaratunga and meets her political rival Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Wednesday.

The European Union says it is strongly committed to the peace process, and wants to see the political crisis resolved so talks can start again.

The European Union has also raised millions of dollars in aid to reconstruct the war-torn country.

The civil war in Sri Lanka erupted in 1983, when the Tamil minorities charged the Sinhalese majority discriminated against them. Tamil rebels and the government began negotiations last year to end the conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people.