Agenda hassles dog Sri Lanka peace talks
Geneva, Oct 28: Sri Lankan government officials and Tamil Tiger rebels meet in Geneva today for the first time in eight months, although little progress was expected from the talks amid ongoing violence on the island.
Hours before the talks began, two claymore mines exploded in Sri Lanka's restive eastern and northern provinces, wounding a total of seven policemen, one badly.
Neither side has as yet finalised their agenda for the talks and would try to do so at the beginning of the meeting set for 1200 hrs IST when they make their initial statements.
''We will decide the agenda during the opening presentations by both sides. We hope it can be finalised on basis of those two presentations where both sides can express their concerns,'' government negotiator Palitha Kohona told Reuters from Geneva.
While a ceasefire remains officially in place, up to 1,000 people have been killed in army offensives and rebel attacks since decades-old hostilities flared up again in July, leaving a 2002 truce in tatters.
Yesterday, the Tigers threatened to cut off future peace talks if the government did not agree to open the main highway to the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula, whose closure in August has resulted in hardship for residents.
Supplies are being sent to the Jaffna region by ship and aircraft but residents, Tamil politicians and civil society groups have reported widespread food and fuel shortages.
Kohona did not confirm whether the government was ready to agree to the highway issue being on the agenda but said Colombo was alive to the problems facing the north and east.
''The government has always been concerned about humanitarian issues whether or not the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) raises those issues,'' Kohona, head of the government's peace secretariat, said.
Colombo wants to discuss holding elections in the northeast, development, and concerns over rebel child soldiers in the , while a spokesman for the Tigers outlined a different agenda. ''Our side says we are going to discuss the humanitarian issues. The government says the political issues. So far no agenda,'' rebel media coordinator Daya Master said by telephone from northern Sri Lanka yesterday. ''Let's wait and see.'' International pressure has been building on the government and the LTTE to resume peace negotiations, but few expect a major breakthrough.
Merely an agreement to more talks after the two-day meetings would be considered a success, but some say even that may be difficult given recent hostilities, and major disagreements between the two sides on what ought to be discussed.
Representatives of both sides are expected to gather near the UN's European headquarters. Norway will facilitate the talks, the first face-to-face meeting between the two sides since February, with Switzerland acting as host.
The Tigers are fighting for an independent homeland for minority Tamils, many of whom complain of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. Colombo has said it is willing to cede some autonomy but has ruled out independence.
More than 65,000 people have died in intermittent ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka since 1983.