Sri Lanka foes meet today

Chance to avoid war, rebels say

October 28, 2006|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,LOS ANGELES TIMES

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- In what could be the last hope for averting all-out war, the government of this island nation and the rebel Tamil Tigers are to sit down today for their first face-to-face talks in months over one of Asia's most intractable conflicts.

Both sides have been stung by heavy losses and international criticism in recent weeks, after a surge in combat that has left hundreds of people dead and thousands more refugees in their own country, forced to flee homes and livelihoods to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

In such an atmosphere, no one is predicting any substantive advances at the negotiating table. But so fierce has been the fighting that getting the two longtime adversaries to meet today and tomorrow in Geneva is being trumpeted as achievement enough, welcomed by residents desperate for a reprieve from the bloodletting.

"For the first round, we are happy that they're going at all," said Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council. "The best thing we can hope for is that they commit themselves to stop the violence."

That violence threatens to engulf the whole of this teardrop-shaped island, spilling over from the north and east where the fighting had, until recently, mostly been confined and where the highly armed, highly motivated rebels want to establish an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic-minority Tamils.

Military checkpoints now ring this capital, in the southwest, amid fears of further attacks like the mine explosion that nearly killed the Pakistani ambassador in a brazen assassination attempt two months ago. Last week, Tamil Tiger suicide bombers aboard fishing boats shocked the Sri Lankan navy by mounting an assault on a naval base at Galle, a southern port city popular with tourists for its colonial charm and far from the traditional theater of war.

Both sides, their casualty counts spiraling since July, are licking their wounds. They are also under intense diplomatic pressure, much of it from major donor countries, to go back to a cease-fire deal signed in 2002 but defunct since late last year, when fighting broke wide open again.

"You're getting peace talks because both sides want to communicate to the international community their willingness to negotiate," said analyst Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. "I would put the bar of expectations fairly low."

Earlier this week, Sri Lankan officials unveiled seven areas of discussion they want to pursue with the rebels, including human-rights violations and the recruitment of children as fighters, a tactic for which the Tamil Tigers are notorious.

Also on the agenda are issues of economic development and greater autonomy in the north and east - tacit admission by the government that it has so far failed to address some of the fundamental grievances underlying discontent in those regions.

Sri Lanka's Tamil population has complained for decades of discrimination and persecution by the majority Sinhalese, who dominate politics and the armed forces.

"It's a new approach," Keheliya Rambukwella, the chief government spokesman, said in an interview here.

"Our interest is how to give benefit to the Tamil community. We are not interested in pacifying the LTTE or any terrorist groups," he said, referring to the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Bolstering the government's position is a newly signed cooperation pact with the main Sinhalese opposition parties on resolving the conflict. The accord gives President Mahinda Rajapakse more flexibility by lessening his dependence on the hard-line right-wing parties that helped elevate him to power last year.

However, Rambukwella is modest about what measurable outcomes can emerge from the weekend talks, the first since February. Most likely, the government's seven points will have to wait for the future, he acknowledges; the best result to be expected in Switzerland is that both sides agree to talk again and agree on dates.

The Tigers have not responded directly to the government's new plan. Their priority in Geneva, spokesman Thaya Master said, will be on easing the growing humanitarian crisis on the Jaffna Peninsula in the north, where choked-off roads have led to food shortages and other hardships for the populace.

Leaders of the guerrilla group have publicly warned that the Geneva talks represent the island's last chance for peace. Failure, they say, would mean a return to full-scale civil war, in which 65,000 people have been killed over the past 23 years.

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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