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Residents venture back out as S.Lanka violence ebbs

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TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka, Feb 27: People have returned to the streets in Sri Lanka's multi-ethnic east after talks between the government and Tamil Tigers pulled the island back from the brink of war, but distrust remains.

A month ago, Reuters found Malika Ponuthurai, her children and grandchildren living in an overcrowded church hall with more than 100 other minority Tamils after violence and threats forced them from their multi-ethnic village.

Now, she is home again.

''We came back very hesitantly,'' she said on the steps of her house on the outskirts of the northeastern port of Trincomalee. ''I think that we can live at peace at least until the next talks but I hope we can live forever in peace.'' Hers was supposed to be a model village where Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims lived side by side. But the Tamils and the Muslims fled after a soldier from the almost-entirely Sinhalese army was killed nearby and they were threatened and attacked.

A string of attacks on troops widely blamed on the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) almost sank a 2002 truce and shattered fragile ties between communities still coping with the fall-out of two decades of civil war.

Tensions died down after government and rebels agreed to hold talks in Geneva, and Malika and her family returned home.

But while the two sides have agreed to meet again in April, the Tigers say they almost walked out of last week's talks, a move diplomats say would almost certainly have heralded a return to a war that killed more than 64,000 people and devastated the Tamil-dominated north and east.

OTHER PRIORITIES

Neither side trusts the other. The government has repeatedly rejected demands for a separate Tamil homeland and it is unclear if the government will actively disarm a group of breakaway rebels in the east as the Tigers demand.

Malika would rather move to an entirely Tamil village where she would feel safer, if she could find a buyer for her soft drink shop. For now, she is worried about getting the bullet holes in her fridge repaired so she can sell cold drinks again.

The attention of Trincomalee residents is drifting away from the talks. In January, 44-year-old fisherman W A Sinrimanna was worried about Tiger pistol gangs said to be targeting Sinhalese men like him. Now he just wants to make sure that his house, destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, is repaired.

''Before the peace talks, there was a lot of trouble,'' he says, as fishermen drag the day's catch onto the foreshore near the ruin of the place he once called home. ''Now, there is no trouble. But still no one has told me anything about when I will get a house.'' On the town's beach, where five Tamil youths were found shot dead execution-style in January, family groups gather.

Even young women are venturing out at night on streets that a month ago were dominated by motorcycle-riding soldiers, their faces obscured with black bandannas.

''Last month, we didn't even dare go out of the house during the day,'' said Tamil schoolteacher Uthayakumar Mylvaganam, 45.

Like most Tamils, he still distrusts the army, but less than he did a month ago.

For an annual festival at Trincomalee's oldest Hindu shrine -- some 8,000 years old, according to legend -- the authorities have allowed hundreds of Tamil Hindus to visit the temple inside an army-controlled, Dutch-built fort dating back to 1675.

But as bells chime and the sun sets over one of Asia's best natural harbours, worshippers say there is still a long way to go before they have confidence in what they see as a state centred in the Sinhalese-dominated south.

''The south was only worried about the war because the stock market would collapse and the tourists would stop coming,'' said 60-year-old lawyer Sivapalam Kasinather. ''Peace will not happen overnight. We are only having talks now because of the escalation of violence in January.''

REUTERS

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