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Miffed Tigers pull out of talks

Colombo, April 21 (Reuters): Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels pulled out of talks to end two decades of civil war today, the biggest threat yet to the island’s best chance of permanently ending the fighting that has killed more than 64,000 people.

The LTTE said in a statement they were committed to a negotiated end to the war but were unhappy about being excluded from an aid donor planning meeting and a lack of progress in improving living conditions for minority Tamils.

“Expressing deep displeasure over certain critical issues relating to the ongoing peace process, the LTTE leadership today informed the Sri Lankan government it had decided to suspend its participation in the negotiations for the time being,” the group said.

The pullout comes eight days before the two sides were to have sat down in Thailand for a seventh round of talks since a February 2002 ceasefire was agreed, and before a donor conference and another round of talks in Japan in June.

There was no immediate comment from the government or from Norway, which brokered the 2002 truce.

The Tigers’ statement said a letter had been sent to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime mover behind the peace process, complaining about being excluded from a meeting in Washington last week that set the agenda for the June conference.

“We view the exclusion of the LTTE, the principle partner to peace and the authentic representatives of the Tamil people, from discussions on critical matters affecting the economic and social welfare of the Tamil nation as a grave breach of faith,” it said.

“The exclusion of the LTTE from this conference has severely eroded the confidence of our people in the peace process,” said the letter from chief Tiger negotiator Anton Balasingham.

The Tigers said they were unhappy commitments made in the ceasefire pact that has mostly kept the guns silent had not been kept, specifically on the removal of troops housed in churches in Tamil areas and help for displaced people.

“Your negotiators’ repeated assurances that the resettlement of the displaced people would be expedited have proven futile,” the letter said.

The Tigers, who have been desperate to win international political recognition, said an appropriate venue should have been selected for the Washington meeting.

The rebels were not invited because the US has listed the group as a terrorist organisation and bans US officials from dealing with it.

The peace bid, despite a slow pace and several recent clashes at sea, has been seen as Sri Lanka’s best chance to end the separatist war that has displaced a million people and devastated the island’s economy.

And Balasingham said the talks so far showed the Tigers sincerity, including agreeing to give up calls for a separate state and explore power-sharing under a federal framework.

“But this progress has not been matched by an improvement in the continuing hardships being faced by our people as a result of your government’s refusal to implement the normalisation aspects of the ceasefire agreement,” Balasingham said.

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