The Sri Lankan Government has announced face-to-face peace talks with the Tamil Tiger rebels, aimed at ending a civil war that erupted nearly two decades ago. But, the rebels say they want their outlaw status lifted before the talks begin.

Sri Lankan Justice Minister GL Peiris says a peace dialogue with the Tamil Tiger rebels will begin in the first week of May. He says both sides agree the time is opportune to open negotiations.

Mr. Peiris says the initial talks will focus on preparing an agenda for substantive political negotiations to end the separatist conflict.

The announcement came a day after a Norwegian delegation held discussions with the Tamil guerrilla leadership in a rebel-held area in the north of the country. Norway has brokered a cease-fire between the two sides and is facilitating the peace process.

In a statement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam say they will join the talks when the ceasefire accord is fully implemented. The guerrillas want the government to lift a ban on the rebel group imposed in 1998.

The demand is not expected to be a hurdle in starting the talks. The government says it is prepared to discuss the issue, but wants an honest commitment from the rebels on their participation in the peace process.

The momentum for peace picked up after LTTE Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham returned to Sri Lanka, Monday. He had been living in London for the last three years. He wanted to meet the secretive Tamil rebel leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran before agreeing to the talks.

The negotiations are to be held in another Asian country. The Sri Lankan Government has already begun looking for a possible venue. Officials say the talks may be held in Bangkok.

Hopes are high that the peace process could lead to a solution to the ethnic conflict that erupted in 1983, when the guerrillas began fighting for a separate homeland for the nation's minority Tamil community.