Sri Lanka

Norway envoy meets Sri Lanka's Tigers

By Peter Apps

COLOMBO, April 20 (Reuters) - A top Norwegian peace envoy met Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels on Thursday, hoping to bring them to scheduled peace talks next week against a backdrop of rising violence, random killings and distrust.

Around 80 people have been killed since the end of the first week in April in a series of suspected Tiger attacks, ethnic riots and an increasing number of unsolved murders that the two sides blame on each other, as fears of a new civil war grow.

Norway, which brokered the island's battered 2002 ceasefire, has sent envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer to try to overcome the obstacles and secure talks in Switzerland.

"A lot will depend on Mr. Bauer's diplomacy," said Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council, a think-tank. "My guess ... is that there will be another postponement."

As the rebels and government wrangle over the talks, daily violence continued.

An army spokesman said a Tiger rebel had tried to attack an army post in the northeastern port town of Trincomalee early on Thursday, but was shot and killed by troops.

A member of a political group opposed to the Tigers was shot dead in the eastern town of Batticaloa, the army said, and it was investigating two bodies found in the northern town of Vavuniya.

A claymore mine also exploded in an area south of Vavuniya, but no one was hurt.

The Tigers say they will not go to Geneva until they can meet their eastern rebel commanders for a meeting. But they pulled out of a previous scheme by Nordic ceasefire monitors to escort them by land and sea and have yet to accept a government offer to use private helicopters for the transport.

The government said on Wednesday the helicopter offer would only last another 72 hours.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have also said they want killings of ethnic Tamil civilians to stop before they go to talks, and diplomats increasingly believe they are simply looking for ways to stop the talks from happening at all.

If the talks do not take place, most expect recent violence -- the worst since the ceasefire was signed -- to increase, and fear it could lead to a new war on an island hard hit by the 2004 tsunami.

BRINKMANSHIP

Others say the Tigers are masters of brinkmanship, and that they simply want to raise the stakes before going to the talks to strengthen their negotiating position.

The Tigers say they want a breakaway ex-rebel faction, the Karuna group, which has been attacking them in the east, disarmed or at least stopped from launching attacks from government areas.

The government denies backing the group and says it does not know where the Karuna fighters are.

Hanssen-Bauer was not able to get a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapakse, seeing instead the prime minister and foreign minister amid government criticism that Norway has been too soft on the Tigers.

Nor will Hanssen-Bauer meet reclusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, instead meeting the Tiger's political wing head, S.P. Thamilselvan.

If talks do happen, few expect a breakthrough on dealing with Karuna, let alone the Tigers' core demand for a separate ethnic Tamil homeland in the north and east.

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Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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