Sri Lanka Talks With Rebels Collapse

The Associated Press
Thursday, June 8, 2006; 7:59 PM

OSLO, Norway -- Talks intended to shore up the fraying cease-fire on Sri Lanka collapsed before they could start Thursday when ethnic Tamil rebels refused to sit down with government officials from the South Asian island nation.

Both sides sent delegations to Norway for what was to have been two days of talks on security issues concerning the team of 60 cease-fire monitors from Nordic nations who are deployed on the island off India's southern tip.

In a surprise, the rebels refused face-to-face meetings with representatives of Sri Lanka's government. The Tamil Tiger rebel movement said it preferred that each side discuss issues separately with the Norwegian mediators.

The breakdown left Sri Lanka in its deepest crisis since the two sides reached a truce in 2002 with the help of Norwegian mediators. The truce halted large-scale fighting in a nearly 2-decade civil war with 65,000 deaths, but intensifying violence has killed at least 375 people since April.

Norwegian officials urged the parties to negotiate.

"Our appeal is very simple: Come to the table now. If you do, many lives will be saved," Norwegian Aid Minister Erik Solheim said.

But there was no indication that would happen. The government delegation was preparing to leave Friday.

"The failure of the sides to meet ... shows we are in the deepest crisis in the peace process," Solheim said.

Solheim, who brokered the cease-fire, had earlier warned of "low expectations" ahead of the meeting, stressing it would only cover the security of the international observer force.

He said that in addition to refusing to meet with government officials, the rebels also demanded that members of the international monitoring team from Sweden, Denmark and Finland _ all members of the European Union _ be excluded from the mission because the EU lists the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group.

"We asked them to reconsider," Solheim said, noting that the individual monitors represent the international mission, not their home countries. The other members of the observer mission come from Norway and Iceland.

Excluding monitors from EU members would sharply reduce their number and require months to recruit others, Solheim said.

The two delegations arrived earlier in the week. The five-member Sri Lanka government mission was headed by peace secretariat chief Palitha Kohona, while the rebels were led by S.P. Tamilselvan, the Tamil rebels' political chief.

Tamilselvan said he had wanted to use the talks to discuss with the Norwegians the issue of the monitors and the EU's listing last week of the Tamil Tigers as a terror group.

Discussions "at this crucial juncture would be productive when the delegations raise the issues separately with the Norwegian facilitators," he said in a statement.

© 2006 The Associated Press