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Not much hope seen in Sri Lanka talks with Tigers

Written by: Staff
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COLOMBO, Oct 25 (Reuters) 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 as part of a 12-member government followed hours later by the rebel delegation.

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 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) , 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 ruled out independence. At least 65,000 people died before the two sides agreed to the 2002 truce and opened negotiations.

The island's ruling and main opposition parties signed a pact this week for a joint approach to talks with the Tigers, a move seen as strengthening the government's hand in Geneva.

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.

The government said it was committed to the talks despite the violence.

''We will not distance or excuse ourselves from the talks but we will respond to terrorist attacks as any government has to,'' cabinet minister Keheliya Rambukwella told Reuters.

TRUST 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.

The pro-rebel Web site, www.tamilnet.com, said people in the Jaffna peninsula were facing a ''severe humanitarian crisis,'' due to the closure of the highway connecting the region to the rest of Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan military said it had airlifted 25,000 kg of essential items to Jaffna since yesterday including medicines.

REUTERS BDP BD1513

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