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Since 1st March, 1999
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Sri Lanka offers statute change to woo back Tigers

Tokyo, June 9 (Reuters): Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister launched a major effort to revive peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels today, saying he was willing to alter the constitution to meet their demand for a regional interim administration.

Speaking as donors pledged more than $2 billion for the country at the start of an aid conference in Tokyo, Ranil Wickremesinghe said once a political solution to end the 20-year conflict had been reached, his government would call a referendum to endorse changes to Sri Lanka’s constitution.

“We will introduce constitutional reforms when we have negotiated a final political solution, which we are fully committed to take to the people of Sri Lanka through a referendum for the ultimate decision,” he told the conference, itself seen as a crucial step towards cementing the fragile peace process.

The rebels, who walked out of peace talks in April citing the slow pace of rebuilding the Tamil-majority northeast and refused to attend the two-day Tokyo meeting, gave no clear response today to the government’s offer.

“We will need to look at the speeches and what was said,” said an official close to the rebels in London.

The rebels had said they would consider resuming talks if the government agreed to an interim authority, which it had previously rejected as unconstitutional.

The rebels are demanding the authority because they want a bigger say in how aid is used.

Wickremesinghe offered to form a “provisional administrative structure” in the northeast in which the Tigers would have a “significant role”, although he did not specifically address the demands of the rebels for their return to talks.

His optimism contrasted with comments from US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, who joined others in urging the Tigers to return to the negotiating table and voiced scepticism over their ability to give up violence.

“(The group that) pioneered the practice of turning its sons and daughters into human bombs is going to have to work hard to build trust and convince the world that it is capable of playing a legitimate role in the political life of Sri Lanka,” he said, referring to the Tigers’ use of suicide bombers.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are listed as a terrorist group by Washington and Armitage said there was no question of changing that unless peace talks resumed.

Donors from 50 countries and institutions are expected to pledge more than $3 billion over three years that will be tied to the bid to permanently end the war that has killed 64,000.

That includes progress on human rights, gender concerns, resettlement of displaced Tamils and “effective measures to stop underage recruitment”, said a draft of the final declaration to be issued tomorrow.

“Demonstrated commitment by both the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to further the peace process will be necessary for the implementation of substantial international assistance to the conflict-affected areas,” it said.

The Asian Development Bank matched Japan’s pledge of $1 billion, and the EU chipped in with 250 million euros ($292 million) over three years, also conditional on the peace process.

Wickremesinghe said the provisional administrative structure would have to be “efficient, transparent and accountable”.

“It was clear that the structures we had put in place were too cumbersome and too distant from the people to be acceptable or to react quickly enough,” Wickremesinghe said.

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