Sri Lanka's government said it is working out details for a permanent cease-fire with Tamil Tiger rebels, that could pave the way for peace talks to end Sri Lanka's 18-year-old civil war. The statement follows comments from Sri Lanka's army chief, calling for the integration of Tamil Tiger rebels into the country's armed forces - if a final peace deal is ever reached.

Optimism is growing in Sri Lanka that a long-lasting cease-fire deal is possible. Sri Lanka's Constitutional Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris told reporters in Colombo Wednesday, his government is committed to a permanent cease-fire. He said he is confident an agreement will soon be finalized.

Both Sri Lanka's government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the Tamil Tigers, have declared separate cease-fires that expire in February. Norwegian diplomats have been working to turn the cease-fires it into a permanent structured agreement leading to peace talks. On Tuesday Anton Balasingham, the head Tamil Tiger negotiator, said he believed a permanent cease-fire could be signed by February 24.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu is the Executive Director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, an independent Colombo public policy research organization. He said both sides are serious about setting the stage for peace talks.

"The focus of the Norwegian effort at the moment and the concerns of both the government and the LTTE is to transform their unilateral declarations - declaring cease-fires - into a stable structured agreement and use that as the basis for further progress as far as the peace process is concerned," he said.

Movement towards ending Sri Lanka's long-running civil war picked up steam following the December 5 election won by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Since then the government has eased an economic embargo of Tamil-majority areas. Mr. Wickremesinghe also says he will consider meeting a key demand of the rebels who say a ban on the Tamil Tigers must be lifted before peace talks can begin.

Previous efforts to start talks with the rebels failed after President Chandrika Kumaratunga said talks should start before a ban on the group could be lifted. Mrs. Kumaratunga also expressed a reluctance to negotiate a truce with the Tamil Tigers, saying she believed they had used previous cease-fires to consolidate their military gains.

Sri Lanka's army commander, Lieutenant General Lionel Balagalle added momentum to the cease-fire effort on Wednesday, when he said the Tamil Tigers should be integrated into Sri Lanka's military - if and when a permanent peace agreement is signed. General Balagalle said the military backed government efforts to bring a peaceful end to Sri Lanka's civil war. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu said General Balagalle's comments are a welcome and significant development.

"It is an extraordinary statement at one level but at the same it is also welcome and constructive to realize the current Army commander is thinking that way ahead into the future. I think a lot of things have to happen before that but that it can be interpreted as some kind of change or be symbolic or symptomatic of a change - a paradigm shift if you like within the military and security establishment is entirely to be welcomed," he said.

While he said Sri Lanka's military must be ready to help assimilate its former enemies into society, General Balagalle also has said if a peace process breaks down, the military will continue fighting the Tamil Tigers. More than 64,000 people have died since Sri Lanka's civil war began in 1983.