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Japan fails to coax Tigers back to talks

Colombo, May 7 (Reuters): Sri Lanka’s biggest aid donor Japan said today it had not been able to convince the island’s Tamil Tiger rebels to return to the negotiating table but added efforts had not ended.

Japanese peace envoy Yasushi Akashi also said after a two-hour meeting with reclusive Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran that a huge donors’ meeting set for Tokyo in June would go ahead as planned.

“Not yet, but I think there is still room for discussions,” Akashi said, when asked by reporters if he had been able to persuade the LTTE to resume direct peace talks with the government to end 20 years of war.

“I think they are interested, but they want to discuss certain concerns with the government,” he said before handing over a letter to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from the LTTE.

The peace bid is seen as Sri Lanka’s best chance — after four previous peace drives ended in renewed fighting — to end a war that has killed 64,000 people, displaced more than one million and throttled the island’s economy. The rebels accused the government of failing to meet promises to rebuild the north and east, suspended the talks and said they would not take part in the donor meeting to raise funds to rebuild war-hit areas of the island.

But Akashi said the meeting would go ahead nevertheless.

”There is no question of rescheduling the Tokyo meeting. The Japanese government cannot change course so easily. It is like a big tanker,” he said.

Chief rebel negotiator Anton Balasingham, who took part in the talks with Akashi, said the government had to act on rehabilitation promises made in an earlier six rounds of talks.

”No tangible action has been taken so far. The government has to do something immediately,” he told reporters in a rebel-controlled area in northern Sri Lanka.

”That will help the LTTE favourably decide to continue the peace talks and participate in the donor conference,” he said.

Wickremesinghe has said the government was stepping up efforts to get rehabilitation work going.

”I think that at the end of it, the talks will be restarted,” he said when he met Akashi.

Norway, which brokered a truce that was signed in February 2002, is also trying to push the two sides back to the negotiating table and Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim will meet LTTE leaders on Thursday. ((Reporting by Scott McDonald, editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Reuters Messaging: scott.mcdonald.reuters.com

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