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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 09:45 GMT
Ceasefire signed in Sri Lanka
Street scene in Vavuniya
Hopes are high the peace deal can last
The Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels have signed a permanent ceasefire ending 19 years of civil war.

The decision was announced by the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jan Petersen, in Oslo.

The ceasefire will take effect on 23 February.

The announcement came as the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, visits the northern frontline town of Vavuniya.

The deal paves the way for direct peace talks after 19 years of civil war.

It is the first visit there by a Sri Lankan prime minister in more than 10 years and security is tight.

The government and Tamil Tiger rebels have agreed to a permanent ceasefire as part of a Norwegian initiative.

Ranil Wickremasinghe
Ranil Wickremasinghe: Morale-boosting trip
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.

Significant progress

Mr Wickremasinghe's decision to visit a town so close to rebel territory indicates confidence that the peace process is making significant progress.

He is expected to visit Sri Lankan troops in a bid to boost moral and explain the ceasefire agreement just signed.

He is also likely to inspect a main highway which runs through rebel territory, a route only officially opened one week ago.

Government officials expect the international monitors, who observe the implementation of the details of the truce, to arrive in Sri Lanka soon.

Tigers' sea wing
The government played down the sea battle
The agreement goes far beyond a mere "halt an offensive action," and is expected to include detailed provisions on how the Tamil Tigers can visit relatives in government territory and start engaging in political work.

It is also expected to include an undertaking by both sides to protect civilians from any kind of harassment, which is significant given recent reports that the Tigers have stepped up extortion and forced recruitment in government controlled areas.

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

The BBC's Jim Fish
"Self rule is the minimum most Tamils will accept"
Vidar Helgesen of the Norwegian foreign ministry
"We believe that the parties want this to stick"
Sutha Nada-Rajah, editor of the Tamil Guardian
"There is a commitment on both sides"
See also:

21 Feb 02 | South Asia
Analysis: Sri Lanka's fragile ceasefire
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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