Sri Lanka seeks truce talks despite violence

Despite a flare up in violence, Colombo has been pressing peace broker Norway and aid donors to help bring the Tigers to the table.

india Updated: May 02, 2006 11:06 IST

Sri Lanka has stepped up moves to revive face-to-face talks with Tamil Tiger rebels despite the bloodiest month since a ceasefire took effect four years ago, a senior official has said.

The bombings and attacks over the past month killed at least 200 people, but Colombo has been pressing peace broker Norway and aid donors to help bring the Tigers to the table, the government's top official handling the peace bid said.

"We are optimistic. I am an optimist," Palitha Kohona told the agency late on Monday.

"We hope the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) will come for talks in Switzerland at the earliest. We are awaiting responses to the proposals we have made."

Colombo and the Tigers failed to keep an April 19 date to discuss ways of saving their truce.

The Tigers asked for a five-day postponement of the talks and later put off the negotiations indefinitely, saying they had logistical and security concerns.

At the root of the problem is a dispute over transporting Tiger leaders from the island's east to the north where the main guerrilla leadership is located.

The Tigers refused to make the 300-kilometre journey by road and demanded a ride in a military helicopter. Colombo rejected the proposal and instead offered the use of private choppers. The Tigers again refused.

"We are awaiting a response from the Tigers to an offer of a private sea plane for their use," Kohona said.

There was no immediate reaction from the guerrillas to the government offer, but a Tiger spokesman last week had said they would consider only a military helicopter or arrange their own transport by sea.

However, the February 2002 truce arranged and put in place by Norway bans unauthorised movement by the LTTE's "Sea Tiger" units.

In an apparent flouting of that stipulation, the pro-rebel Tamilnet website reported on Monday that the Tigers had moved an unspecified number of their fighters between two points along the island's northeastern seaboard on Sunday.

Both sides reported clashes at sea Sunday and Monday, with the military saying five of its sailors were wounded. In land-based violence, seven people died on Monday in mine attacks, which officials blamed on the Tigers.

Last Tuesday, a suicide bombing in Colombo critically wounded army chief Sarath Fonseka and killed 10 others plus the bomber.

The government, saying it was acting in self-defence, retaliated with air strikes against suspected Tiger positions but Scandinavian truce monitors called the strikes a ceasefire violation.

While the Tigers last week accused the government of "openly declaring war", they too said they were fully committed to the ceasefire agreement.

Diplomatic sources close to the peace process said the two sides were facing foreign pressure to de-escalate violence and hold talks in Switzerland.

Retired airforce chief Harry Gunatillake, a political advisor to former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, said the two could move towards talks within weeks.

"It is better to have talks about talks than have nothing at all," Gunatillake said. "I think by the middle of this month we should see some movement."

Formal peace negotiations between the two sides have not occurred since April 2003 when the Tigers walked out after six rounds of face-to-face negotiations begun in September 2002.

However, both agreed to abide by the ceasefire, which is tenuously holding, and in February they met to discuss ways to halt a cycle of violence that saw at least 150 people killed between December and January.

More than 60,000 people have been killed in the island's drawn-out Tamil separatist conflict since 1972.

Tigers have been demanding a separate state for minority Tamils in the majority Sinhalese nation of 19.5 million people.

The guerrillas agreed in December 2002 to settle for a federal state but those talks remain inconclusive.

First Published: May 02, 2006 11:06 IST