Sun, Jan 23, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Norway steps in in Sri Lanka's aid spat with Tamils

OLD DISPUTES Norway's foreign minister yesterday visited the Tamil Tigers capital to defuse a fight over tsunami aid and he hopes to revive peace talks


Norway's foreign minister yesterday was in the capital of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels to resolve disputes between the government and the insurgents over the distribution of tsunami aid.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen is also hoping to kick-start stalled peace talks between the guerrillas and the government in Colombo to avert a return to the 19-year civil war that left 65,000 people dead.

A Tamil relief organization has charged that the government was holding up container-loads of medical supplies bound for the northern and eastern areas under rebel control. The government said it was following routine procedures in the distribution of aid.

At issue was whether the rebels could receive aid directly from overseas donors, underscoring their demand for independence from the Colombo government, or whether the government should centralize the aid disbursement which it says is necessary for fairness.

"We are not happy with the equal distribution of aid," said Anton Balasingham, the chief Tiger peace negotiator who flew from his home in London to attend what he called "a very crucial meeting" with the Norwegians.

The government has said it was bending over backward to give the rebel zones their fair share.

Petersen's arrival in Kilinochchi was delayed a few hours because bad weather forced his helicopter to land midway from Colombo and he had to complete the journey by car.

There was tight security in the rebel town and journalists were barred from the area where the minister was scheduled to meet Tigers commander Velupillai Prabhakaran. Rebel spokesman Daya Master said the meeting had started, but gave no other details.

International aid workers have said they are satisfied with the relief cooperation by the Tigers and the government, and all refugees are being adequately fed and cared for.

The crowded unsanitary refugee centers set up immediately after the disaster have been dismantled and the refugees moved to more manageable camps. Those, too, will disappear in the next few weeks, replaced by temporary thatched shelters housing individual families, said Penny Brune, the Kilinochchi director of the UN children's agency UNICEF.

The coordination "has gone extremely well," she said in an interview.

At least 31,000 Sri Lankans on both sides were killed, with some estimates ranging beyond 38,000. About 1 million were displaced.

While the focus was on relief efforts, Balasingham said the Norwegians also intended "to explore the feasibility of resuming the negotiation process" that broke down in April 2003.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam fought the Sri Lankan army to a standstill between 1983 and 2002. The Norwegians brokered a truce which has largely held, but it looked increasingly fragile in the weeks before the tsunami equally devastated both sides.

Joining the talks was Norwegian special peace negotiator Eric Solheim.

Hopes were raised of cashing in on the collaboration in aid relief to build enough confidence to resume political discussions on ending the ethnic dispute, which is centered on Tamil accusations of systematic discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.

But troubles soon cropped up. Rebels and army soldiers occasionally scuffled over the distribution of aid in the tsunami refugee centers, especially in the east where the lines of control are less clear than in Tiger-controlled areas in the north.

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