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Sri Lanka Invites Norwegian Negotiators to Help End Civil War - 2004-04-23

Sri Lanka's president has invited Norwegian peace negotiators to resume talks aimed at ending the nation's two decade old civil war. Norway suspended its involvement in peace talks in November, because of a political feud between the president and former prime minister.

An advisor to Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga says the Foreign Ministry phoned top Norwegian officials late Thursday to ask for their continued assistance in the peace process.

Advisor Eric Fernando says there was never any question the mediators would be asked back, once Sri Lanka's political crisis was resolved.

?Why did Norway suspend its involvement? Because there was this political uncertainty, all those permutations. They said once it ends, we will come back,? Mr. Fernando said.

Reports out of Norway say that mediators are also waiting for an invitation from the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group before they return to Sri Lanka. So far there is no timetable for renewed peace negotiations.

The guerrillas have waged a 20 year campaign for greater autonomy for areas in Sri Lanka dominated by ethnic Tamils.

Norway helped mediate a cease-fire between the government and the rebels in February 2002. But the peace process was stalled by political friction between President Kumaratunga and her rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was prime minister at the time. The two disagreed over how to approach talks with the rebels, with Ms. Kumaratunga favoring a tougher stance.

The standoff prompted Norwegian mediators to suspend their involvement in the peace process and leave Sri Lanka in November.

Earlier this month, Sri Lanka held snap parliamentary elections called by the president to resolve the standoff with Mr. Wickremesinghe. Ms. Kumaratunga's Freedom Alliance ousted the prime minister's United National Party from power, allowing her to install a new prime minister, Mahinda Rajapakse.

But Ms. Kumaratunga failed to win a parliamentary majority. She has been working to form a coalition government since the April 2 poll.

The resumption of peace talks may also have been complicated by a split within the ranks of the Tamil Tigers. Fighting erupted earlier this month after a top eastern commander left the group, taking some 6,000 soldiers with him. Clashes only lasted a few days and commanders from the rival northern faction say Sri Lanka's eastern region is once again under their control.