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Lanka talks enter decisive phase

Nakorn Pathom (Thailand), Jan. 5 (Reuters): Sri Lanka’s bid to end two decades of war has entered a key stage and arguments over sensitive security issues should not be allowed to derail the momentum, the island’s Prime Minister said today.

“We are now at a decisive moment in the peace process,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on national television in Sri Lanka on the eve of a fourth round of talks with the Tamil Tigers in Thailand. “It is time now to embark on the road to a permanent peace,” he said.

The talks, which made quick progress since beginning in September, could drag over the next four days as the two sides discuss a dispute over army demands that the rebels give up their arms in return for the military letting refugees return to their homes in high- security areas in the island’s war-ravaged north.

But Wickremesinghe, in one of his strongest statements on peace since winning an election just over one year ago, said it was vital that the talks not be stopped.

“Whatever situation may arise, we must not leave the negotiating table,” he said.

The chief negotiator for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Anton Balasingham, has said the resettlement issue had to be dealt with before dealing in depth with so-called core issues.

He also warned that the idea of the Tigers giving up their arms was “non-negotiable... provocative and will not contribute to the creation of a congenial atmosphere for discussions”.

The government’s chief negotiator, G.L. Peiris, today said he did not expect the dispute to disrupt the talks.

“We really don’t think that it will overshadow the discussions,” he said. “There are ways of resolving it in a practical manner.”

Until the dispute arose in the last several weeks, the talks at a picturesque resort on the edge of Bangkok had been expected to look at ways of power-sharing as a solution to ending an ethnic war that has killed 64,000 over the last two decades.

Huge strides had been made in the first three rounds of talks, raising hopes that the island of 19 million people had its best chance yet of permanently ending the separatist conflict.

The LTTE had been fighting for a separate state in the north and east for Tamils, who they say are discriminated against by the island’s majority Sinhalese, but dropped that demand and agreed to discuss setting up a federal system that would give them regional autonomy.

Peiris also tried to downplay hopes that the rapid progress would continue at each round of talks.

“We have to recognise the reality that at the end of every session there is not going to be a dramatic breakthrough.”

The latest meeting comes as life is changing in Sri Lanka, with residents now able to drive from one end of the tropical Indian Ocean island to the other for the first time in years after re-opening of roads into rebel-controlled areas.

Road blocks that littered the capital Colombo — there were at least a dozen on the way to the airport — are gone, as are the dreaded suicide bombers, the signature act of the Tigers to back their separatist demands.

A truce signed in February has largely held, with just a handful of deaths last year instead of the usual thousands.

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