By Simon Gardner
KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka, June 19 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's plan to share $3.0 billion in international tsunami aid with the Tamil Tigers could help jumpstart peace talks that broke down two years ago and left the island's two-decade civil war in limbo, the rebels say.
But the government -- which senior officials say will formalise the aid-sharing pact in days -- must also agree to discuss the Tigers' long-standing demands for interim self-rule in the north and east, S.P. Thamilselvan, the leader of the rebels' political wing, told Reuters.
"Most certainly we welcome such a gesture from the government to sign (the joint mechanism)," Thamilselvan said in a weekend interview in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) northern stronghold of Kilinochchi.
"But having said that, just signing the agreement is not going to pave the way for peace talks. Implementation is the most important aspect," he added.
"Immediately after implementation, if sincere action is taken, well and good, it will open the way for the peace process."
His comments were in stark contrast to rebel warnings earlier this month that government delays in signing the aid pact, which is still pending nearly six months after the tsunami hit, risked plunging the island into a "very serious and dangerous" situation.
Resumption of peace talks would be the most significant step in Sri Lanka's protracted peace process since talks broke down in 2003, just a year after the warring sides agreed to a ceasefire.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga's government split in two over the aid plan on June 16, when her hardline Marxist ally quit the ruling coalition in protest and reduced it to a hamstrung minority in parliament. But the government is expected to limp on for now.
TIGERS TO JOIN MAINSTREAM?
The Tigers have signed off on a draft of the Norway-brokered aid pact -- under which committees comprising rebels, government officials and Muslims can recommend, prioritise and monitor projects -- and say there will be no more negotiation.
"It has taken a final shape. It has taken so much time ... If this is going to be again subject to negotiation, of course that will be futile and would be wasting time," Thamilselvan said.
Tens of thousands of tsunami survivors on both sides of the island's ethnic divide are still living in tents and shacks and surviving on food handouts, and donors want some of the aid to be spent on repairing ruined towns and infrastructure flattened by years of endless shelling.
Aid-sharing will also help build confidence between the state and the Tigers, whose war for self-rule killed more than 64,000 people up until the 2002 truce, ravaged swathes of the island and choked the $18 billion economy by scaring off foreign investment.
Such confidence building could help eventually bring the rebels into Sri Lanka's political mainstream, analysts say.
"The tsunami (pact) as we see it, is only a mechanism intended to deliver immediate humanitarian relief," Thamilselvan said. "But this can definitely help build confidence."
"If that could lead to going into mainstream politics, well that's a welcome sign," he added.
The aid mechanism will initially last one year and can be extended later if both sides agree.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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