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Lanka Muslims eye bigger role in talks

Colombo, Jan. 2 (Reuters): The leader of Sri Lanka’s largest Muslim party said today that minority Muslims had to be given a bigger role in peace talks between the government and Tamil Tigers rebels.

The demand, which comes just before the latest round of peace talks between the government and the Tigers begins on Monday, reflects the uneasy relationship between Sri Lanka’s Muslims and the mostly Hindu Tamils.

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem, who is part of the government’s negotiating team at the talks to end 19 years of war, said Muslims had been promised independent representation when substantive issues began to be taken up.

“In our opinion that stage has now been reached. The promises that have been made to us have got to be kept, otherwise the whole credibility of the peace talks vis-a-vis the Muslim community could be at stake,” Hakeem said in an interview.

The island’s ethnic conflict has centred on the divide between the Sinhalese-dominated government and minority Tamils, but Muslims comprise eight per cent of the population and are considered crucial to any final settlement.

The Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhist.

The Tigers have in past been accused of ethnic cleansing for evicting about 100,000 Muslims from the Tamil-majority Jaffna peninsula 10 years ago, and relations between the two communities remain fractious.

The east of the island, where numbers of Tamils and Muslims are about equal, has been the site of the only major clashes since a Norwegian-brokered truce was signed in February.

Despite past promises, the Tigers have hinted they do not want to see a third voice emerging at the talks.

“His (Hakeem’s) demand that the talks be treated as a tripartite affair is untenable: the Muslim community is not a third protagonist in the conflict,” the Tamil Guardian newspaper, which reflects the views of the rebels, said in an editorial on its website.

Hakeem’s party also holds the key to the government’s slim majority in parliament, but was thrown into disarray in December when a dissident faction sacked him and elected their own leader, prompting Hakeem to rush back from peace talks in Oslo.

The government and the LTTE, who had been fighting for a separate state, agreed at that round of talks to discuss a federal system that would give regional autonomy to the Tamil-dominated north and east.

But Hakeem stressed any devolution of powers must take the Muslim minority into account.

“You’ve got to recognise the fact that the northeast is not a mono-ethnic region. It is a multi-ethnic region, and there are areas which are predominantly the traditional areas of habitation of Muslims,” he said.

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