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Sri Lanka, Tamil rebels agree to talks
Updated: 2005-08-20 09:23

Sri Lanka's government and Tamil Tiger rebels agreed Friday to meet in coming weeks to review a cease-fire that has been threatened by a rash of killings, including the assassination of the foreign minister, AP reported.

The meetings will be the first formal sessions between the sides in more than two years.

Peace negotiations remain stalled, and the prospects for reviving them as uncertain after the Aug. 12 assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar by suspected rebels.

Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen said Friday the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam had agreed to hold the talks in the coming weeks. The exact timing and venue were still being worked out.

"We have gone from very dire prospects to promising prospects in a very short time," he told The Associated Press in Oslo, Norway.

"We made it clear that it was a very critical situation and that positive steps needed to be taken," Helgesen said, adding that the need to review the 3-year-old cease-fire "became more acute because of the killings and counter-killings in recent months."

A Tiger spokesman confirmed the group had agreed to the talks, and a pro-Tiger Web site said they would take place in Oslo.

The Tigers began fighting in 1983 for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. The conflict killed nearly 65,000 people before the Norway-brokered cease-fire was signed in February 2002.

While the truce has generally held on this island nation of 19 million, including 3.2 million Tamils, peace talks have stalled over rebel demands for greater autonomy in the areas they control in the north and east.

The rebels also want the government to disarm paramilitary groups they claim attack them as they pass through government-controlled territory in accordance with the cease-fire agreement. The government denies supporting the paramilitaries.

In recent months, scores of people have been killed, some in skirmishes along the border between government and rebel territory, while others were killed in what were presumed to be political assassinations.

The Aug. 12 killing of Kadirgamar by a suspected rebel sniper further heightened tensions. Within hours, President Chandrika Kumaratunga imposed a state of emergency and sent the army to hunt for suspects. But she pledged to respect the cease-fire.

Parliament on Thursday extended the emergency powers for a month, and Kumaratunga said she wanted to hold direct talks with rebels in an effort to end the spate of political killings.

The chief of the European team monitoring the cease-fire, Hagrup Haukland, called the news of talks "a positive sign." But he expressed dismay that the "discussions have nothing to do with the resumption of peace talks."

Haukland said while he did not expect a major overhaul of the cease-fire agreement at the talks, he hoped both sides would agree to greater cooperation and allowing monitors more freedom of movement.

Jehan Perera, an analyst at the National Peace Council, an independent think tank, said the international community's condemnation of the foreign minister's killing may have prompted the Tigers to change their position.

"It is very good news under the circumstances," Perera said. "After the assassination, one could have anticipated a rapid downward plunge, even into war."

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