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Friday, 3 November, 2000, 14:31 GMT
Analysis: Sri Lanka's search for peace
Tamil Tigers
Some believe the Tigers are buying time to regroup
By Alastair Lawson in Colombo

The difficulties facing Norwegian special envoy to Sri Lanka Eric Solheim in finding a solution to the 17-year-old conflict are considerable.

He has to try and find common ground between two leaders who seemingly have irreconcilable views.

Prabhakaran
Prabhakaran wants an independent Tamil state
The Tamil Tigers have repeatedly stated they want nothing less than an independent state, while the Sri Lankan Government says that it will never allow its territorial integrity to be compromised.

The recent rhetoric exchanged between two sides indicate just how far apart they still are.

The Sri Lankan Government refers to the Tigers as ruthless terrorists, while the rebels have accused the government of carrying out genocide in the north and east.

Mr Solheim says that any peace settlement would have to insure the island remains one country while simultaneously addressing the grievances of the minority Tamil community.

He says that is the view of the international community which he passed on to Mr Prabhakaran.

Serious talks

The Norwegian envoy has not said what demands have been outlined by Mr Prabhakaran to stop the fighting.

But they are almost certain to be a repeat of the rebels' demand that government forces de-escalate their presence in the north and east of the country.

That is a demand that is unlikely to elicit a positive response from the government of president Chandrika Kumaratunga, especially because the armed forces now believe they have the upper hand in recent fighting in the northern Jaffna Peninsula.

It is not clear why the Tamil Tiger leader - after many years without consulting foreign intermediaries - chose the present time to grant Mr Solheim an audience.

Theories abound in Colombo that he did so to acquire breathing space for his forces who, it is argued, are on the back foot in the east as well as the north.

It is asserted that the Tamil Tiger leader wants to use peace negotiations so that he can recruit and re-arm.

Chandrika Kumaratunga
Kumaratunga has remained reticent over developments
But there is little concrete evidence to support this view.

The rebels have proved time and time again over the last two decades how adept they are at winning decisive military victories over the army when it appears their forces are demoralised or exhausted.

The government's role in the latest peace initiative has also been curious.

As Mr Solheim said on Thursday, without their consent it would have been impossible for him to meet Mr Prabhakaran.

Reticent

Yet the president and her ministers have remained strangely reticent over the latest developments.

There have has been little or no official reaction to Mr Solheim's talks.

But that could change after the envoy meets President Kumaratunga.

What is clear is that any possibility of negotiations with the Tigers could be something of a hot political potato for the president.

During the recent election campaign she insisted that peace in Sri Lanka would either come about through the defeat of the Tigers on the battlefield, or in her efforts to give Tamil majority areas more autonomy by changing Sri Lanka's constitution.

Both the president and her senior advisors including the prime minister let it be known that in their view, efforts by Norway to mediate in the war had reached the end of the line.

U-turn

Now it appears the government is already re-thinking this strategy, in what is tantamount to a major policy U-turn.

Mr Solheim will now be consulting with India in relation to the latest developments.

As the regional superpower, he argues that Delhi's role in any peace settlement in Sri Lanka is crucial.

India's position in relation to the conflict mirrors that of the international community: the needs of the Tamils need to be addressed, but they should not be given a separate state.

The key question facing Sri Lanka today is whether or not Mr Prabakaran can accept that proposition as a basis for peace talks.

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See also:

03 Nov 00 | South Asia
Sri Lanka peace mission continues
02 Nov 00 | South Asia
Tamil Tigers 'serious about peace'
24 May 00 | South Asia
Push for Sri Lankan peace
01 Feb 00 | South Asia
Norway role in Sri Lanka peace plan
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