Thu, Sep 14, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lankan officials deny `unconditional' talks

`SURPRISED' REACTION A defense spokesman panned a statement by a Norwegian mediator who said discussions with insurgents would be held without preconditions

AFP , COLOMBO

A Sri Lankan official denied yesterday that the government had agreed to unconditional talks with Tamil Tiger rebels, and accused peace broker Norway of failing to consult with Colombo before making any announcement.

Government defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said he was "surprised" by the remarks of Norway's International development minister Erik Solheim on Tuesday that the two parties have agreed to talks without conditions.

Solheim told a meeting of Sri Lanka's aid donors in Brussels on Tuesday that the warring parties were ready for talks, which could be arranged early next month in Oslo.

"The government of Sri Lanka said it was ready for talks without any pre-conditions and the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] has said the same," Solheim told AFP when contacted by telephone.

"We will have the talks the first week of October in Oslo," he said.

Rambukwella, who does not normally speak about the peace process on behalf of the government, accused Solheim of misleading the international community and the public.

"To the surprise of the government, Mr Solheim is reported to have announced that the talks would take place in Oslo," Rambukwella said in a statement.

"The government neither agreed to unconditional talks nor was consulted," he said.

However, the government's "Peace Secretariat," which coordinates with Norway, published in full on its Web site a statement from the US, Japan, the EU and Norway -- the quartet which are the co-chairs of Sri Lanka's donor community -- welcoming the talks.

"The Co-Chairs welcome the expression of willingness of the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to come to talks unconditionally as conveyed to the Facilitator," the statement said.

The Peace Secretariat made no comment on Solheim's announcement about the talks.

The Tigers and the government had a round of talks in February in Switzerland to attempt to preserve a truce agreement struck in 2002 and agreed to meet in June, but the second meeting was aborted.

Earlier talks aimed at ending decades of fighting came to a halt in 2003 when the Tigers walked out.

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