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Norway's Sri Lanka peace envoy to stand aside

Written by: Staff

OSLO, Mar 16 (Reuters) Norway's International Development Minister Erik Solheim said today he will stand aside as a special peace envoy in Sri Lanka's civil war but keep overall responsibility for Oslo's mediation effort.

The 51-year-old, who has often visited Sri Lanka in the past six years as peace envoy, said Oslo would soon name a successor.

Solheim is due to mediate a round of peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tigers in Geneva next month.

In 2002, Solheim helped organise a truce to a civil war that has engulfed the Indian Ocean island for two decades and killed around 64,000 people.

''You can't do this day and night and look after my other government responsibilities,'' he said. Officials said he would have overall responsibility for mediation efforts and attend any peace talks.

Solheim is a member of Norway's socialist party and became development minister in addition to being Sri Lanka peace envoy after a centre-left coalition won power in a parliamentary election in September.

''I will continue to be involved as it will take some time for the new person to know the politics and the people,'' he said. He did not name a successor but said the appointment would take place shortly.

''It's always good to bring in some fresh blood and it may help the cause too,'' he said.

VIOLENCE Analysts in Sri Lanka did not expect Solheim's less hands-on role to ruffle the island's strained peace process any further.

''Perhaps the Tigers might be (disappointed), but on the other hand they know (Vidar) Helgesen (a former deputy Foreign Minister who was previously Solheim's boss) too. I don't think they would be unduly concerned,'' said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were not immediately available for comment.

''I'm still reasonably optimistic that we will perhaps have a second round of Geneva talks,'' Saravanamuttu said, referring to talks due to be held in Geneva on April 19-21.

But for the peace process to move on the two sides have to give up all violence as they promised in February, Solheim said.

''If they don't do this they can't expect much from the peace talks. They must deliver,'' he said.

The chief rebel negotiator has said the Tigers may pull out of the April talks if the government reneges on a pledge to disarm a breakaway faction.

Violence in Sri Lanka has cooled since January 25 when the two sides agreed to meet but if the talks collapse many fear the island will plunge into all-out war.

The Tigers want a separate homeland for minority Tamils in north and east Sri Lanka, where they run a de facto state. They say four years of peace have bought them little, and threaten to resume their armed struggle unless given wide autonomy.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has ruled out a separate Tamil homeland.


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