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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 17:17 GMT
Norway opens Sri Lanka peace talks
Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgesen (2nd left) with Sri Lanka's Deputy Foreign Minister, Lal Gamage
Norway has been engaged in peace efforts for several years
Norwegian peace negotiators have begun talks in Sri Lanka with the government and the minority Tamil community in an attempt to end the country's 18-year civil war.

What we are going to do first is to formalise the ceasefire

GL Peiris, Constitutional Affairs Minister

The team, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen, met the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe.

They also held talks with members of Tamil political parties.

Hopes for peace have brightened after the election of Mr Wickramasinghe's United National Party last month, with the new government reciprocating a truce offer by the separatist Tamil Tigers.

Earlier peace attempts failed with the previous government of Chandrika Kumaratunga accusing the Norwegians of favouring the rebels.

Peace hopes

The new government also met another rebel condition as a prelude to peace talks - easing an economic blockade on rebel-held territory.

Ranil Wickramasinghe
Wickramasinghe's election has led to fresh hope
But any peace deal would require the approval of Ms Kumaratunga - who remains the country's president.

Norway has been trying to broker talks between the two sides for the past three years, but has still not been able to facilitate a direct meeting.

Last week, a Norwegian team met the rebels' chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, in London and later described the talks as "constructive".

Venue blow

The Tigers were also reported to have indicated a desire for talks to be held in Madras, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The [Tamil Tigers are] an extremist outfit banned by the federal government

Panneer Selvam, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister

But on Thursday the chief minister of Tamil Nadu said his government will not allow the Tigers to use Madras as a venue for peace talks.

The current ceasefire, which began on 24 December, is due to last one month and is the first time in seven years that both sides have observed a halt in hostilities.

See also:

22 Dec 01 | South Asia
Sri Lanka seeks Indian support
21 Dec 01 | South Asia
Sri Lanka enters truce with rebels
09 Dec 01 | South Asia
Sri Lanka's new PM sworn in
12 Dec 01 | South Asia
Tamil Tiger attacks in Sri Lanka
07 Dec 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Sri Lanka's hopes for unity
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