Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka peace talks agree to demobilize child soldiers

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Berlin (dpa) - Sri Lankan officials and Tamil rebels agreed Saturday at Norwegian-mediated peace talks that child soldiers serving with rebel forces return home, a senior Norwegian diplomat said.

The agreement stipulates that the teenagers lay down their arms and be trained for civilian jobs, said Vidar Helgesen, state secretary at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. A further 350 child soldiers had already been allowed to return to their families.

Anton Balasingham, who lives in exile in London and headed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam delegation at the two days of talks in Berlin, gave an assurance the LTTE would no longer recruit anyone under 18.

Scandinavian diplomat Helgesen said agreements had also been reached on reconstruction in the north and east of the island which has been ravaged by the war. An agreement with the World Bank to fund the programme was close.

On its own initiative, Norway has taken on the task of ending one of Asia's most intractable wars.

Constitutional Affairs Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris, who led the government delegation at the talks in the Norwegian embassy in Berlin, said, "After 20 years of war, Sri Lanka's problems cannot be solved overnight.''

There would also be a special programme for Moslems who have been caught in the middle of the conflict and have lost their homes and become refugees, said Helgesen.

The two sides reached agreement in December to reshape Sri Lanka as a federal nation with Tamil self-rule.

Just hours before the talks began Friday, two Norwegian peace monitors and a Tamil interpreter narrowly escaped death when three rebels blew themselves up on a boat reportedly smuggling ammunition and an anti-aircraft gun.

The Norwegians managed to leap clear of the exploding boat just in time. They had been inspecting the vessel off the northeast coast of Sri Lanka after a tip-off from Colombo that it was gun-running in breach of a one-year-old truce.

Helgesen said that despite the incident, agreement had been quickly reached to keep talking. There had been discussions about how to avoid such incidents in future.

Balasingham said the men had been just fishing and had not been smuggling any weapons as reported. They had committed suicide in the presence of the monitors purely out of "spite''.

Colombo had also offered an independent interpretation of the suicide on Friday, with an official praising the men for killing themselves to save the peace talks. Had evidence of a breach in the truce survived, the talks might have failed.

The next round of peace talks is to be held in March. The peace talks are aimed at settling an ethnic conflict which has claimed over 69,000 lives since 1983.

dpa jbp bg jm AP-NY-02-08-03 1239EST

Copyright (c) 2003 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 02/08/2003 12:39:47

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