COLOMBO, Apr 19 (Reuters) A top Norwegian peace envoy was due to meet Sri Lankan government officials today to try to secure peace talks but, with the rebels adding new conditions for attending, the talks were looking increasingly unlikely.
More than 70 people have died since the first week of April in a series of suspected rebel Tamil Tiger attacks, ethnic riots and a wave of other killings that have reignited fears of a return to the island's two-decade civil war.
A second round of talks in Switzerland had originally been scheduled to start today, but last week the Tigers postponed them by a week and then said they could not attend at all, citing a dispute over the transport of eastern rebel commanders to a pre-talks meeting.
Norway, which brokered the island's now very strained 2002 ceasefire, has sent special envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer to try to overcome the problems, secure talks and stop the violence.
But while both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) say they want to go to the talks and halt violence, diplomats increasingly say they may not be serious and that the gulf between them may just be too big.
A senior government official said it was unlikely that Hanssen-Bauer would even get a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapakse, whose Marxist and Buddhist allies oppose any concessions to the rebels.
''There's dissatisfaction with how things are being done at present,'' the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
''Facilitation so far has meant just giving what the LTTE wants.'' In fact, diplomats say the Tigers, whom Hanssen-Bauer is to meet tomorrow, have become almost impossibly difficult and suggest they never really wanted talks. The rebels deny involvement in recent fragmentation mine attacks on troops, but few diplomats or analysts believe them.
NEW DEMANDS President Rajapakse has repeatedly ruled out Tiger demands for a separate Tamil homeland, but for now the diplomatic headaches are over much, much smaller issues.
The Tigers initially pulled out of the talks after accusing the navy of monitoring too closely the transport of their eastern rebel leaders organised by the island's Nordic ceasefire monitoring mission.
The government, after considerable discussion with the monitors, agreed to offer the use of a private helicopter.
But the Tigers have now added new conditions for attending the Geneva talks, demanding a halt to attacks on Tamil civilians, labelling recent ethnic riots as genocide and demanding that agreements reached at the first round of talks be implemented.
That is seen as a demand for the government to disarm renegade ex-rebels, known as the Karuna group, who ceasefire monitors say appear to be operating from army-held territory despite government denials. The government promised to disarm groups in their territory, but are seen not to have done so.
Rebel and pro-rebel websites accuse the government of increasing killings of Tamil civilians, showing pictures of mutilated bodies.
The military denies the charges.
Today, a Tamil newspaper in the northern town of Jaffna with good Tiger sources said they looked set to turn down the offer of a private helicopter to transport their leaders.
''Private helicopters that are presently being used in Sri Lanka are not capable of flying very high,'' the newspaper Ethayan said in Tamil. ''They also don't have the capacity to resist any attack ...
That is what the LTTE says.'' REUTERS SRS PC1004