Sat, Nov 15, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Norway withdraws from Sri Lanka's peace negotiations

POWER STRUGGLE The political battle between the president and prime minister has forced the mediators to throw in the towel, at least for now


Norway is pulling out of efforts to restart talks between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels until the country's president and prime minister settle their political dispute, Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen said yesterday.

"We are going home to wait," Helgesen said. "In the current political situation, holding talks will be impossible."

Norway has been instrumental in Sri Lanka's peace process, brokering a ceasefire in February last year between the government and the Tigers and helping to launch six rounds of peace talks. But those talks have been on hold since April, with the rebels demanding broader interim autonomy.

Norwegian mediators came to the country this week in hopes of setting the stage for new talks on resolving a conflict that has left 65,000 people dead since 1983.

But the country is embroiled in a power struggle between the prime minister -- who has sought to negotiate a lasting peace with the rebels -- and the president who alleges the prime minister has made too many concessions.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga on Nov. 4 wrested control of the ministries of defense, interior and information from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as part of their dispute. She also suspended parliament and briefly imposed emergency rule.

The two disagree on how to negotiate with the rebels, and Wickremesinghe's government said earlier this week that any efforts to restart peace talks must wait until the political crisis is resolved. The Norwegians yesterday echoed that sentiment.

"There has to be clarity on the ground for the peace process to resume, but there is none at the moment," Helgesen said.

There was no immediate comment yesterday from either the government or the rebels.

Kumaratunga rejects the rebels' demand for an interim administration, saying it amounts to a virtual separation from the rest of the country. The prime minister says that greater autonomy is open for discussion at peace talks.

Central to their dispute is who controls the Defense Ministry, because most ceasefire-related issues are under its authority. The prime minister says that unless Kumaratunga hands back control of that ministry, it will be impossible for him to lead the peace process.

Helgesen and special envoy Erik Solheim met with rebel leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran behind closed-doors in Kilinochchi on Thursday, and Tiger representatives later pledged to abide by the ceasefire despite the political turmoil.

Prabhakaran founded and leads the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam, launching a violent campaign in 1983 to establish a homeland in the northeast for the country's 3.2 million mostly Hindu Tamils, alleging discrimination at the hands of the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority

Helgesen expressed optimism that the guns would stay silent for now, but cautioned that the ceasefire could be undermined.

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