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Tamil Rebels, Norwegian Foreign Minister Discuss Tsunami Relief Efforts

A leader of the Tamil Tiger separatists has accused the Sri Lankan government of taking advantage of last month's tsunami disaster to build up its military strength. The accusation came as a team of Norwegian peace mediators traveled to the rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi, to discuss relief efforts.

The chief negotiator for the Tamil Tiger rebels, Anton Balasingham, says that despite the disaster, the Sri Lankan government plans to buy $150 million worth of arms on the international market.

"I am not saying that they are utilizing aid devoted to tsunami for military purposes. What I have said is it is a monumental tragedy that people are facing - both the Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims," he said. "So it is not the time for the government to spend an enormous amount of money to purchase military hardware. That is giving us concern."

On Saturday, Norway's Foreign Minister Jan Petersen met with senior Tamil Tiger officials, including the group's reclusive leader Vellupilai Prabhakaran. Norway is facilitating peace talks between the government and the rebels and this was the mediators' first meeting with the guerrilla leaders since the December 26 tsunami.

The tsunami killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans, many of them in areas under the control of the Tamil Tigers. Both the rebels and the government have accused the other of using the disaster for political gain and in some cases, preventing aid from reaching people in need.

But it also prompted hopes that the government and the rebels would put aside more of their differences, first for the relief effort, and ultimately for the peace plan, which had largely stalled prior to the tsunami.

Foreign Minister Jan Petersen says his main goal was to discuss coordinating relief efforts between the government and the Tamil Tigers. But he also discussed the peace plan process.

"If the two parties really manage to work well together then it might create an atmosphere which will be conducive to the peace process as well, because this is what has hit everyone in Sri Lanka," he said.

The Tamil Tigers have waged a violent two-decade campaign against the government for control of areas where the ethnic Tamil minority is predominant. More than 60,000 people have died in the conflict. A cease-fire brokered by Norway has largely held for nearly three years.

On Friday, the Norwegian delegation met with Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga.