Geneva, Oct 28: Sri Lankan government officials and Tamil Tiger rebels met in Geneva today for the first time in eight months, although little progress was expected from the talks amid ongoing violence on the island.
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 in the South Asian country of 20 million people.
Just hours before the Geneva talks started, the Sri Lankan military said three claymore mines exploded in the country's restive eastern and northern provinces, wounding a total of seven policemen, one seriously, and one soldier.
Pressure has been building on the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to resume talks but few expect a major breakthrough from the weekend session that began with a handshake between Sri Lankan Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and Tiger chief negotiator S P Thamilselvan.
In their first face-to-face meeting since February, representatives from both sides of the decades-old conflict gathered at a conference centre near the United Nations' European headquarters for talks facilitated by Norwegian International Development Minister Eirik Solheim.
''The aim of these talks is to find ways to reduce and then stop the violence,'' Solheim told the delegates, stressing that patience has worn thin among most Sri Lankans and in the international community.
While noting the acceleration of violence and humanitarian suffering in Sri Lanka since their last such gathering, Solheim said it remained important the two sides come together.
''Even at the most difficult times there is need for dialogue,'' he said.
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.
Yesterday, the Tigers threatened to shun 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.
Government negotiator Palitha Kohona did not confirm whether Colombo was ready to agree to the highway issue being on the agenda, which was still being finalised on Saturday morning, but said humanitarian concerns were important to the talks.
''The government has always been concerned about humanitarian issues whether or not the LTTE raises those issues,'' Kohona, head of the government's peace secretariat, said from Geneva.
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 full independence. More than 65,000 people have died in intermittent ethnic conflict in the country since 1983.