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Sri Lanka: Norwegian envoy's visit doubtful

By Staff
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COLOMBO, Apr 19: A top Norwegian peace envoy was to meet Sri Lankan government officials today to try to secure peace talks, but with two new attacks blamed on the rebels negotiations looked increasingly unlikely.

More than 70 people have died since the first week of April in suspected rebel Tamil Tiger attacks, ethnic riots and other killings that have reignited fears of a return to the island's two-decade civil war.

In the latest violence, a claymore mine blast in the northwestern region of Mannar injured two members of the Sri Lankan navy, the army said, adding that the attack could only have been carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

A Korean businessman was injured in a separate claymore attack in the northern town of Vavuniya, his driver said.

''At first I thought a tyre had punctured. Then I saw all the windows and glass had shattered,'' the driver, 46-year-old Anura Nullaperuma, said, speculating his vehicle had been mistaken for an army car.

The Tigers have denied involvement in recent mine attacks on troops, but few diplomats or analysts believe them.

A second round of talks in Switzerland had been due to start today, but last week the Tigers said they could not attend, citing a dispute over the transport of eastern rebel commanders to a pre-talks meeting.

Norway, which brokered the island's strained 2002 ceasefire, has sent special envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer to try to secure talks and stop the violence.

WIDENING GULF

But while both the government and the LTTE say are committed to the peace process, diplomats say neither may be serious and the gulf between them is widening. 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 mostly Hindu 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.'' Instead, Hanssen-Bauer was to meet Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera today, the ministry said. Nimal Siripala de Silva, the chief government delegate at the last talks in February, said he would meet the Norwegian tomorrow.

Hanssen-Bauer was also due to meet the Tigers tomorrow in Kilinochchi, their northern headquarters.

President Rajapakse has repeatedly ruled out Tiger demands for a separate homeland for ethnic-minority Tamils, but for now the diplomatic headaches are over 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 eventually agreed to offer the use of a private helicopter, but a Tamil newspaper in the northern town of Jaffna said the rebels looked set to turn down the offer.

''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.'' The Tigers have also added new conditions for attending the Geneva talks, demanding a halt to attacks on Tamil civilians and labelling recent ethnic riots as genocide.

REUTERS

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