Wed, Nov 12, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lankan leaders set for talks

BID The president and the prime minister will sit down together for the first time since their power struggle began to discuss how to `resolve the present crisis'


A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard in Jaffna as children walk to school yesterday. Residents of Jaffna, long ravaged by a war between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels, are nervous about a political struggle between the country's president and prime minister that is threating a 20-month-old peace process.


Sri Lanka's prime minister, embroiled in a power struggle with the president, will meet with her today in their first face-to-face meeting since the country was plunged in political crisis last week, his office said.

The announcement yesterday coincided with Norwegian peace brokers arriving in Colombo and meeting with European monitors overseeing Sri Lanka's ceasefire with Tamil rebels.

The two developments were not related, but they raised hopes that this tropical island of 19 million people will not be pushed back to war with the separatist rebels. A day earlier, President Chandrika Kumaratunga asked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss her proposal for a coalition government.

The prime minister's spokesman, G.L. Peiris, said the premier will "discuss ways and means to resolve the present crisis." He did not elaborate.

"Events of last few days have damaged the peace process and the prime minister wants to make it sure that it is not damaged any further," said Peiris, who also heads the government delegation at peace talks.

Meanwhile, Vidar Helgesen, Norway's deputy foreign minister, and special envoy Erik Solheim met with officials from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission after arriving in Colombo late Monday, said Tomas Stangeland, a spokesman for the Norwegian Embassy.

A Monitoring Mission spokeswoman said the envoys discussed their proposed meetings with Sri Lankan officials and Tamil Tiger rebels, and expressed confidence in the February truce last year between the two sides.

"We have already told the Norwegian government that we have words from both parties that the ceasefire will hold," said Agnes Bragadottir, spokeswoman for the 55-member mission. "Indeed, the ceasefire is holding and our monitors on the ground are keeping a close watch."

Norway brokered the cease-fire that halted 19 years of fighting and led to six rounds of peace talks. But the rebels walked out of the talks in April, demanding broader administrative powers in Tamil-majority areas of the island.

Face-to-face talks had been expected to start after the rebels submitted a self-government proposal Oct. 31. But the political standoff between the president and prime minister set back those plans, and on Monday, the government said peace talks with the rebels were indefinitely postponed.

Kumaratunga, who sees the rebel proposal as an assault on Sri Lanka's sovereignty, on Nov. 4 wrested control of the ministries of defense, interior and media -- which had spearheaded peace efforts -- from Wickremesinghe.

She also suspended Parliament and briefly declared emergency rule.

The Norwegians also were scheduled to meet with officials from both the president's and the prime minister's parties, Stangeland said. The two envoys, who leave Sri Lanka tomorrow, was due to meet with Wickremesinghe late yesterday.

Pro-rebel Web site TamilNet reported the Norwegian meeting with the Monitoring Mission, saying the two envoys "would try to bring a consensus between ... [the] president [and the] prime minister and the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam to revive the peace talks."

The report cited unidentified diplomatic officials.

The Norwegians are scheduled to meet with the rebel leadership when they travel tomorrow to Kilinochchi, the de facto capital of rebel-controlled Sri Lanka.

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