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Sri Lanka back from brink but cautious on peace

Written by: Staff

COLOMBO, Apr 14: Sri Lanka today took a step back from the brink of civil war after Tamil Tiger rebels agreed to go to talks in Geneva, but with a new date yet to be agreed many remain cautious about hopes for a lasting peace.

More than 40 people have died in the last week in the bloodiest spell since a 2002 truce, leading many diplomats to fear talks scheduled for next week would be cancelled and that the island's two decade civil war would resume.

''My feeling is that this is not over yet,'' said a western diplomat. ''Every time the Tigers agree to something there is a new condition, and it can be the same with the government. When the Tigers want something, all they know is violence.'' The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), whose struggle for an ethnic Tamil homeland in the island's north and east has killed more than 64,000 people on both sides, say they now want talks delayed by several days until after April 22.

The government says that would cause logistical problems and is still keen to stick with the original dates of April 19-21, but has yet to announce a final decision on whether it will agree to the rebel postponement.

The string of suspected rebel attacks on the military and ethnic riots that followed in the northeastern town of Trincomalee left many diplomats and analysts fearing the worst.

The rebels denied the attacks, but few believed them.


Now some see the violence as an extremely bloody piece of brinkmanship aimed at raising the stakes before talks at which they will again demand the government disarms a renegade group of ex-rebels the Karuna group, who have been attacking the mainstream Tigers.

The army denies rebel accusations that Karuna is government backed. Ministers promised in a first round of talks in February to disarm any armed groups in government territory, but the military now says it has not found anyone to take weapons from, angering the rebels.

Both sides are widely seen to be rearming and both say they could win any new war, but some diplomats and analysts say all out conflict would likely degenerate into a bloody stalemate that would devastate an island also hit hard by the 2004 tsunami.

In the northern army-held Tamil enclave of Jaffna, cut off from the rest of the country by Tiger territory and ravaged by decades of fighting, few are optimistic that the two sides can make meaningful progress, or that they even want to.

''Though it sounds good outside, these talks have no purpose,'' said 27-year-old trainee accountant Samuel Nesarajah at his family home. ''The same issues will be brought up again.

It is a waste of time. If all killings stop on all sides, I will be happy with that.''


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