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Peace envoys flying into palace war
- Norwegians on schedule for talks, battling Lanka leaders are not

Colombo, Nov. 10: Norwegian mediators in the Sri Lanka peace talks are arriving later tonight for what was scheduled to be a preparatory meeting ahead of the negotiations between the Tamil Tigers and representatives of the Lanka government.

The Norwegians — deputy foreign minister Vida Hegelsen and the special envoy for the peace talks Erik Solhein — are making the trip despite the bitter political struggle between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

But justice minister G.L. Peiris, a close confidant of the Prime Minister who has been involved in the peace process from the beginning, made it clear that the preparatory talks cannot proceed without first resolving the political stand-off.

“It is logical to assume that we have to first resolve the principal issue before going into negotiations with the LTTE, the issue is who holds the levers of power in the country. The person negotiating with the LTTE must be capable of taking decisions and ensuring that these are implemented,” Peiris said.

Signs today appeared of a possible meeting between the two since the crisis erupted a week ago with the President sacking three ministers and assuming emergency powers. Kumaratunga has suggested three dates to discuss a government of national reconciliation to unitedly negotiate a peace deal, but the two could meet as early as tomorrow.

Peiris explained that the Prime Minister’s cabinet could not be expected to continue the peace talks as it no longer has the defence portfolio, which was taken away by the President. The defence portfolio is vital because whether or not to continue the ceasefire depends on the armed forces and the Tigers. If the army is not controlled by the Prime Minister, the President, as the commander-in-chief, will have to decide.

Peiris repeated the cabinet’s stand that Kumaratunga should take over the peace negotiations or give back the defence, interior and information portfolios. The Prime Minister is on a firm wicket as he knows that the people value the two years of peace he has been able to hold by engaging with the Tigers.

“Just nobody is in the mood to go back to the days when our boys were being killed in the conflict. Both Tamils and Sinhalese want the bloodletting to end,” said Suresh Mutthuswamy, a Colombo businessman.

After nearly two decades of conflict which has shattered the economy, Lankans want peace at any cost. “Engaging the Tigers is the best thing Ranil Wickremesinghe has done, and the President should not try to wreck the peace talks,” Mutthuswamy added.

Analysts say this is the Prime Minister’s trump card. He knows every citizen wants the ceasefire with the Tigers to continue.

His other major advantage is that the LTTE trusts him and this has given him the confidence to turn on the pressure on Kumaratunga.

Wickremesinghe wants to push the President into a corner and force her to retract her position.

“You know our President, she is not one to back down. Besides, she has done nothing which is unconstitutional,” a presidential aide said.

“The UNP (Wickremesinghe’s party) is trying to spread the canard that she is against the peace process, everyone knows she was willing to give much more to the LTTE than even the Indians did when they took on the role of peace maker,” the aide said.

But public memory is short and the President is now seen by some as a peace wrecker.

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