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Lanka plans military review

Colombo, Jan. 1 (Reuters): Sri Lanka said today it planned to restructure its military if a peace process with Tamil Tiger guerrillas that has led to an end to nearly two decades of ethnic war takes hold.

Defence minister Tilak Marapane said in a statement that a committee had begun a review of the 150,000-strong military and was looking at ways of reducing defence spending while maintaining security.

“We do not know how long the peace process will take but we can begin now to plan to reconstruct the security sectors,” he said. “As changes occur to the national security landscape, some areas of the security sector will have to be increased, others ‘right sized’, but all within what the country can afford,” he said.

At a news conference, defence secretary Austin Fernando said the government did not have any estimates of how much could be saved on defence if it the military was restructured.

Defence spending is seen at about 50 billion rupees ($520 million) this year compared to 49 billion last year.

“The need to import ships, aircraft, other weapons, equipment and ammunition has placed undue pressure upon our foreign exchange reserves,” Marapane said.

Defence spending accounted for more than five per cent of Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product during the height of the war and the military built up an arsenal that included Czech-built multi-barrel rocket launchers, Israeli Kfir jet fighters and Russian MI-24 helicopter gun ships.

In the first major dispute to befall peace talks that began in September, rebels this week rejected a government proposal that they disarm in the war-torn northern Jaffna peninsula in return for allowing refugees into sprawling military camps.

The issue is expected to be taken up at a fourth round of peace talks in Thailand next week.

The rebels are also upset that the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, comprising observers from Nordic countries overseeing a truce signed in February, cautioned last week that demands by either side had to be balanced by security concerns.

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