/ 24 January 2006

Sri Lanka asks Norway to arrange early talks

Sri Lanka’s president on Tuesday asked peace broker Norway to arrange early talks with Tamil Tiger rebels and help stem the latest wave of violence that has killed at least 151 people, officials said.

President Mahinda Rajapakse held closed-door talks with Norway’s top peace envoy, Erik Solheim, on salvaging the island’s Oslo-backed peace process, which has remained deadlocked since April 2003, officials said.

“The president’s main message was to convey to the Tigers that he is ready for early talks,” an official source close to the president said. “He wants the violence to stop and talks to begin at the earliest.”

The official source, who declined to be named, said Solheim would carry Rajapakse’s message to the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran on Wednesday.

Diplomatic sources close to the peace process said they were trying to arrange an initial ice-breaking meeting between the government and the Tamil Tigers by mid-February at a European venue.

Solheim declined to give details of his talks, but said he wanted both parties to respect the truce that Norway arranged and put into effect from February 23, 2002.

“What is important is that both parties must respect each other, respect the ceasefire, reduce violence and stabilise the situation,” Solheim told Agence France-Presse.

“Violence is regrettable and I deplore it. We had one-to-one chats for about one and a half hours. I won’t go into the details,” Solheim said of his meeting with Rajapakse.

“What the president told me today and what Mr Prabhakaran will tell me tomorrow will remain confidential and I will leave it to both parties to make their public statements.”

A statement issued by Rajapakse’s office after the talks gave no details, but said they had discussions “regarding the possibility of resuming negotiations with the LTTE and bringing an end to the current violence in the country.”

Solheim also met with Sri Lanka’s main Muslim leader, Rauf Hakeem, who pressed for a separate Muslim delegation in the event of talks between the two main antagonists.

Muslims constitute about 7,5% of the country’s 19,5-million people and are the second largest minority after Tamils.

The latest peace moves were marred by a bomb attack that killed three soldiers on Monday and shootings that left two people dead in the island’s restive north-eastern district of Trincomalee.

Unidentified gunmen shot dead government worker Subramaniam Sugirtharajan (35) who also contributed to a Tamil newspaper, while another state employee was killed in Trincomalee, a military spokesperson said.

He said the killings appeared to be linked to the island’s drawn-out Tamil separatist conflict and part of ongoing tit-for-tat killings by rebel factions.

At least 151 people have been killed in a surge of violence since December despite the truce.

The latest violence came as the United States added to Norway’s efforts to salvage the island’s tottering peace process and prevent the embattled nation’s return to full-scale war.

Solheim had a separate meeting with visiting US undersecretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns, who later branded the LTTE a “reprehensible terrorist group keeping this country on the edge of war”.

A blast in the eastern district of Batticaloa killed three soldiers and wounded two within hours of Solheim’s arrival.

The talks in the rebel-held northern town of Kilinochchi would focus on the “current situation and ground realities,” said LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham. – AFP