Vol. 5 Num 64 Fri. July 30, 2004  

Lanka willing to talk Tigers' self-rule demand
Opposition offers cooperation for peace

Sri Lanka's government took a key step toward restarting stalled peace talks with Tamil rebels yesterday when it dropped a longstanding refusal to discuss the guerrillas' self-rule proposal, a day after a peace envoy warned new warfare could break out.

The Norwegian peace envoy, Vidar Helgesen, left Sri Lanka on Thursday after failing to revive the talks and warning that a cease-fire signed in 2002 was in jeopardy.

President Chandrika Kumar-atunga has repeatedly refused to hold talks with the rebels on their proposal to set up a self-rule interim authority in Tamil-majority parts of the country in the east and north unless they were linked to a final peace settlement.

But Jayantha Dhanapala, the government's top official handling the peace process, said the government was now willing to discuss the rebels' demand for an Interim Self-Governing Authority, or ISGA.

"The president is willing to discuss the ISGA along with government proposals to set up an interim authority," Dhanapala said.

The Tigers began fighting in 1983 to create a separate state for minority Tamils, accusing the majority Sinhalese of discrimination.

The war has left 65,000 people dead. Subsequent peace talks were stalled in April 2003 over rebel demands for wide autonomy.

AFP adds: Sri Lanka's main opposition yesterday offered an unexpected life line to the minority government to revive peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels despite differences within the shaky coalition.

Opposition spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said his United National Party (UNP) would offer the required majority in parliament for President Chandrika Kumar-atunga's administration to revive the talks.

The remarks came a day after Norway's top peace envoy, Vidar Helgesen, said he was convinced of Kumaratunga's commitment to the peace process but that she needed help from others in government.

Helgesen did not elaborate, but his remarks were seen as a reference to Kumaratunga's main partner, the Marxist JVP, or People's Liberation Front which is opposed to any concessions to the Tigers.

Another Tamil group, the Eelam People's Democratic Party, which is also a constituent member of the minority government, bitterly opposes the Tigers.

Senaratne said the UNP, which was accused by Kumaratunga of making too many concessions to the Tigers when it was in power, wanted Kumaratunga to start peace talks with the Tigers based on the rebel proposal for self-rule.

"It is not that we support the Tiger ISGA (Interim Self Governing Authority) proposal, but we think it can be a basis for talks," Senaratne said.

"If the JVP threatens to pull out and bring the government down, we will give her government the necessary support in parliament to remain in power. We will give her unconditional and unstinted support."

Helgesen admitted failure in Norway's latest attempt to revive Sri Lanka's stalled peace negotiations and warned of a resumption of war unless its leaders salvaged the faltering process.

He said Sri Lankans appeared to have taken peace for granted after an Oslo-brokered truce took effect in February 2002.