COLOMBO, Oct 25: The Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels hold peace talks in Geneva this week but there appears to be little hope of settling a decades-old conflict that has flared again in recent months, killing hundreds.
Intense fighting since July, which effectively ended a 2002 ceasefire, has killed up to 1,000 combatants and civilians in army offensives, rebel attacks and naval warfare. But it has also led to donors and others in the international community to bring pressure on both sides to resume talks.
Just an agreement to talk further would be considered a success, officials said.
''Laying the ground in Geneva for continued dialogue would be considered by the whole world as positive,'' Palitha Kohona, the head of the government's peace agency, told Reuters.
''To us, the alternative (failure of talks) is unacceptable,'' Kohona said, before leaving for Geneva late yesterday as part of a 12-member government negotiating team.
Others are predicting that even an agreement to talk further may be difficult.
''It is a very uncertain climate that they are going to be negotiate in,'' said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, an independent thinktank.
''The pressure on them from their own domestic constituencies is an important factor that may determine the ultimate outcome.'' The Tigers, considered one of the most ferocious guerrilla armies in the world, have been fighting since the early 1980s for an independent homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.
The government has said it is willing to give some autonomy but has ruled out independence. At least 65,000 people died before the two sides agreed to the 2002 truce and opened negotiations.
On Monday, the island's ruling and main opposition parties -- which dominate the political landscape of Sinhalese-majority south -- signed a pact that called for a joint approach to talks with the Tigers, a move seen as strengthening the government's hand in Geneva.
The latest peace talks -- the first direct meeting since February -- is the result of public dismay at the ferocity of the conflict in past few months, despite the existence of the truce, at least on paper.
Tiger leaders were not available for comment ahead of the talks but a parliamentarian from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), seen as the rebels' political front, said the government had to take several steps to gain the trust of Tamils.
N Raviraj called on Colombo to stop aerial bombardment of Tamil areas as well as end human rights abuses, and open a key highway to the Tamil-dominated Jaffa region in the north from central Sri Lanka to allow humanitarian assistance.
''Our experience is that the (southern) parties have cheated the Tamil people and denied them their rights,'' Raviraj said. ''I hope peace talks result in better things but I have my doubts.'' The mistrust cuts both ways.
''Peace talks are good but we can't trust the Tigers' word. After all, these are people who kill children,'' said Tyron Frank, a 30-year Sinhalese man working in a food court in a Colombo shopping complex.
''I don't have much hope for the success of these talks.'' A complication ahead of talks is a ruling by the country's Supreme Court last week that held a 1987 merger between the northern and eastern provinces unconstitutional and invalid, raising protests from Tamil groups like the TNA, as the merger was based on Tamil demands.
Analysts say both sides have suffered serious reverses on the battlefield -- the rebels in September in the north and east -- and the army this month where it lost around more than 150 soldiers in fighting in the Jaffna peninsula in the far north.
Last week, the rebels slammed a explosives-filled truck into a convoy of Naval staff, killing 100 people, mainly sailors.
Perera warned of more violence if things go badly in Geneva.
''If talks fail, then we would go in for a period of increased violence and also intense warfare.'' ''It will be a tragedy for Sri Lanka.''
Sri Lanka Crisis