Hopes for a revival of Sri Lanka's peace process dimmed after Tamil Tiger rebels rejected a government offer to hold ice-breaking talks at an Asian venue hosted by Japan, diplomats said yesterday.
The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on Saturday rejected a government offer to end an impasse over a venue for talks on a fragile ceasefire in place since 2002 by agreeing to an Asian location.
Colombo had earlier insisted that any talks with the Tigers must be held on the island, but last week told Japan's peace envoy Yasushi Akashi that it was amenable to an Asian venue. The suggestion promoted Akashi to offer Japan as a venue.
But the LTTE rejected the offer saying it wanted to continue with a Norwegian-sponsored talks format that the new government of President Mahinda Rajapakse had pledged to review.
Location of talks
"There is no change in our position with regard to the venue for talks and we stand by the Norwegian facilitator's original suggestion that the talks on effective implementation of the ceasefire take place in Oslo," the LTTE's political leader S.P. Thamilselvan said on the group's official Web site.
There was no formal government reaction to the LTTE's rejection of an Asian venue and insistence on Oslo for the proposed talks.
Asian diplomats said the latest stance of the Tigers was a setback to hopes of the current peace broker Norway, as well as Sri Lanka's key backers that talks to shore up the ceasefire could begin early next month.
Diplomats said the Tiger statement was also a snub to Akashi who last week publicly offered to host the talks in Japan after Colombo told him that it was climbing down from its earlier stance and agreed to negotiations in Asia.
The rejection comes ahead of a meeting by a quartet known as the "co-chairs" that have pledged financial support for peace building in Sri Lanka -- Japan, the EU, the US and Norway.
They are due to meet in Brussels today to review Sri Lanka's faltering peace talks which broke down in 2003 on LTTE demands for autonomy in the northeast which is largely controlled by the rebels.
"The co-chairs were keen that the talks begin as soon as possible particularly in view of the deteriorating security situation in the northeast," a Western diplomat involved in the peace effort, who declined to be named, said.
At least 35 people, including 18 government soldiers and two policemen, have been killed in the northeast of the island nation this month alone in bloodshed linked to a separatist ethnic conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives since 1972.
The Western diplomat said there was growing concern that mediation efforts on the ceasefire were stalled completely as several governments have said continued violence has heightened the possibility of a return to war.
"We are not in a position to even talk about talks. We are getting bogged down over a venue," the Western diplomat said.
"Even if we clear that soon, there has to be the question of delegations on both sides and where they want to start," the diplomate said.
The status of the ceasefire was thrown into further doubt after rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran warned on Nov. 27 that the LTTE would step up a struggle for an independent homeland next year if the peace process remains stalled.
A return to war could lead to further isolation for the LTTE.