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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 14:06 GMT
Peace deal in Sri Lanka
Female Tamil Tiger fighters
The truce represents a major breatkthrough
The Sri Lankan Government and Tamil Tiger rebels have agreed to a permanent ceasefire as part of a Norwegian initiative to end almost two decades of civil war.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe has signed a memorandum of understanding drawn up by Norwegian negotiators which puts an indefinite truce in place.

Tigers' sea wing
The government has played down the sea battle
The official announcement will be made by the Norwegian mediators after both sides have signed the agreement, when full details will be released to the public.

The BBC's Frances Harrison in Colombo says the agreement represents a major breakthrough in efforts to end conflict in Sri Lanka.

The chief negotiator of the Tamil Tigers, Anton Balasingham, said the memorandum would come into force on 24 February.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate homeland in Tamil majority areas in the north and the east of the country.

Some 60,000 people have been killed in nearly two decades of fighting in Sri Lanka.

The government, meanwhile, said it was working to ensure that a sea battle between the Sri Lanka navy and rebels off the north-east coast did not escalate.

Preparing for peace

The Norwegian ambassador, who has facilitated the latest negotiations, has travelled to Kilinochchi, the biggest town under rebel control.

Path to ceasefire
Dec 2001: Ranil Wickramasinghe elected prime minister on a pro-peace mandate
Dec 2001: Tigers declare unilateral ceasefire. The government reciprocates
Jan 2002: Government eases economic embargo on rebel-held areas
Feb 21: Two sides agree permanent ceasefire.

Rebel sources said he met the leader of the Tiger's political wing, SP Thamilselvan.

But the Sri Lankan Government expects overall leader Velupillai Prabakharan to sign on behalf of the Tigers.

Officials said a copy of the agreement is being given to the leaders of the political parties in Sri Lanka after consultations with the president and the former foreign minister.

Our correspondent says it is thought the agreement will be a very detailed one.

It is likely to cover treatment of civilians by both sides, conditions for movement of unarmed combatants in each other's territory and issues like fresh recruitment.

Mr Wickramasinghe is due to visit the northern town of Vavuniya on Friday to make a formal address on the peace process to thousands of troops.

Sea battle

The fragility of the current temporary truce was underlined by news of the major sea battle between the two sides earlier on Thursday.

At least one naval officer was killed and more injured in the clash off the north-eastern coastal town of Mullaitivu, a major rebel base.

The military said a flotilla of Tiger boats fired on the navy. For their part, the Tigers said at least four civilians were seriously injured in the ensuing aerial bombardment and cannon fire from naval vessels.

But Constitutional Affairs Minister GL Peiris told journalists in the capital Colombo that one incident should not put the entire peace process in peril.

"It is a utopian expectation to have a ceasefire devoid of incidents of this nature," he said.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Neil Ross
"There have been signs that the people of Sri Lanka have tired of the bloodshed"
See also:

20 Feb 02 | South Asia
Food ration crisis in Sri Lanka
21 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka rebels release war prisoners
21 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka matches Tigers ceasefire
18 Feb 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka to 'cut defence spending'
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