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Lanka rivals agree to disagree over security

Nakorn Pathom (Thailand), Jan. 9 (Reuters): Sri Lanka’s government and Tamil tiger rebels agreed to disagree on a security dispute today but announced plans to speed up humanitarian work in a bid to end two decades of ethnic war.

The four days of talks at a resort on the edge of Bangkok did not produce any breakthroughs as the earlier three rounds did, but Norwegian mediators said the session had been important because the two sides were able to progress despite the dispute.

“The pragmatic spirit in which they solved the problems was remarkable,” said Vidar Helgesen, the deputy foreign minister of Norway, which helped bring the government and the rebels to the negotiating table.

He said the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE had agreed there was a “need to ensure the implementation of urgent humanitarian priorities”.

The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for minority Tamils, who they say are discriminated against by the island’s majority Sinhalese.

But in earlier talks the rebels dropped the demand for a separate state and agreed with the government to discuss setting up a federal system that would give them regional autonomy.

Helgesen said the two sides agreed to an “Action Plan for an Accelerated Resettlement Programme for the Jaffna district” that would be done in two parts.

The first, for which recommendations are to be in place by mid-February, will focus on resettling people outside sprawling military security zones on the northern Jaffna peninsula.

The second phase, for which no timeframe was given, will focus on resettlement inside the security zones.

The contentious security issue centred on demands by the Sri Lankan army that the Tiger rebels begin disarming in return for allowing displaced Tamils to return to their homes inside the zones.

The Tigers say disarming now was not possible, and pulled out of a committee set up to look at de-escalation in protest.

“The parties did not reach agreement on the continuation of the work of the sub-committee,” Helgesen said.

In addition to killing 64,000 people, the war has has left more than one million people internally displaced and Helgesen said there were worries political progress in the talks was moving ahead of work on the ground.

“Political progress must be underpinned by tangible improvements in the daily lives of people,” he said.

The two sides also picked the World Bank to oversee a fund raised from international donors that will pay for the rehabilitation work. Helgesen said a human rights adviser would meet both parties at the next round of talks in February. Because of the fighting, there are a huge number of single-parent families in northern Sri Lanka.

Four more rounds of talks are planned by the end of June, Helgesen said.

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