Norwegian peace envoy begins talks with Sri Lankan officials on moribund peace process
Thu November 30, 2006 07:56 EST .
Associated Press Writer
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ A Norwegian peace envoy on Thursday began talks with Sri Lankan government representatives on ways to save the island's moribund peace process with Tamil Tiger guerrillas, an official said.
Jon Hanssen-Bauer, who arrived earlier Thursday, met with the government's chief peace negotiator Nimal Siripala de Silva, a close aide of the Sri Lankan official said.
He said de Silva discussed ways to restart the stalled peace talks with the rebels.
A round of talks held in Switzerland late last month failed when the rebels insisted that a key highway linking the Tamil-majority Jaffna peninsula with the rest of the country be reopened, a request the government flatly rejected.
Jaffna residents face acute shortages of food and medicine because of the road's closure since August because of heavy fighting.
The rebels want the road reopened immediately to send essentials, while the government says it can send the goods by sea or through an alternate land route. The government maintains the rebels could use the highway to transport fighters and weapons and extort money from motorists.
Some 500,000 people are trapped in the Jaffna peninsula while another 36,000 people are isolated in Vaharai village in eastern Batticaloa district, because access roads are closed.
Hanssen-Bauer's visit comes amid escalating violence between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that has imperiled a 2002 cease-fire and threatened to return the country to all-out war.
The Tiger's top leader earlier this week called the Oslo-brokered cease-fire ``defunct,'' but the rebels later clarified they would abide by the truce.
Tamil Tiger spokesman, Rasiah Ilanthirayan, said Hanssen-Bauer was scheduled to meet with the rebel leadership on Dec. 4 and that political wing chief, Suppiah Thamilselvan, would explain the rebels' aims.
Ilanthirayan, meanwhile, accused Sri Lanka's navy of attacking a unit from the rebels' sea wing off the northwest coast, wounding one fighter. ``We retaliated to the navy attack causing damages to their boats,'' he said.
The navy, however, denied the attack occurred, and claimed the Tigers shot dead a local fishermen at sea and wounded another.
``They fled the scene when navy boats approached and no gunbattle took place,'' said a navy official on condition of anonymity, as he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
Also on Thursday, army seized two explosives-laden jackets from an abandoned house in northern Jaffna peninsula.
Spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said besides the jackets, the military also found two rocket propelled grenades and two T-56 automatic weapons and ammunition during the search late Wednesday.
``We got a tip-off and found the explosives which were to be used against us,'' Samarasinghe said.
Suicide attacks are the hallmark of the rebels, who are fighting the Sri Lankan government to create a separate homeland for the country's 3.1 million ethnic Tamil minority.
Sri Lanka's open civil war stopped after the 2002 truce, but since a spike in violence this year the agreement now only exists on paper, with more than 3,500 fighters and civilians killed in assassinations, mine blasts, suicide attacks, artillery exchanges, sea battles and airstrikes, according to government figures.
The government says it is willing to give autonomy to areas where Tamils are in the majority, but rebels insist on sweeping changes that the government says will infringe on the country's sovereignty.
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Published: Thu Nov 30 11:16:25 EST 2006