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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 16:56 GMT
Sri Lanka seals truce deal
Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe points towards Tiger-held territory
The prime minister was elected last year promising peace
The Sri Lankan Government and Tamil Tiger rebels have signed a permanent ceasefire agreement, paving the way for direct talks to end the country's long-running ethnic conflict.


People are tired of war, on both sides and I think their leaders recognise that.

Norwegian negotiator Vidar Helgesen

Announcing the breakthrough in Oslo, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen - whose country is sponsoring the latest peace initiative - said the ceasefire would begin on Saturday.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe visited a checkpoint leading to the rebel-controlled north of the country formally to hand over his signed copy of the agreement to the Norwegian ambassador.

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

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

'First step'

The BBC's Frances Harrison says his trip to the northern town of Vavuniya, on the very edge of Tiger-held territory, has made history.

Female Tamil Tigers fighters
The Tigers have moved beyond 'cautious optimism'

Mr Wickramasinghe said he would not disclose the details of the agreement until Sunday, but said it represented the "first step towards peace".

The accord does not mention peace talks, but preliminary negotiations are expected to be held shortly.

But the agreement is expected to include detailed provisions on how the rebels could 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.

Mr Petersen also confirmed that a ceasefire document, which takes effect from midnight local time (1800 GMT) on Friday, had been signed by Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

According to our correspondent, the Tigers now say they have gone beyond cautious optimism, and have embraced the new truce.

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

Optimism

The Norwegian Government, which has been trying to negotiate a peace deal for more than two years, has seen four previous attempts collapse.


It is generally accepted in Sri Lankan society that there has to be autonomy for the north and east

Jehan Perera
Sri Lanka's National Peace Council

This time, however, it is more optimistic.

"People are tired of war, on both sides and I think their leaders recognise that," Vidar Helgesen of the Norwegian negotiating team told the BBC.

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

At the root of the conflict is the discrimination the country's minority Tamils say they have suffered at the hands of the Sinhalese majority.

Jehan Perera of Sri Lanka's National Peace Council said the government will have to grant the Tamils a greater degree of independence.

But our correspondent says there is still scepticism in the south over whether the Tigers are they ready to give up demand for a separate state

President Chandrika Kumuratunga
The president has expressed scepticism about the truce

Another obstacle that remains before face-to-face peace talks can begin is the Tamil Tigers's insistence that the government lifts its ban on the group.

That is a contentious issue with many Sri Lankan politicians.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is from a rival party, said the prime minister rushed into the truce without giving her adequate notice.

But a statement from her office also said she did not oppose the ceasefire deal.

Mr Wickramesinghe believes he has the mandate to take big steps because he came to power last December on a promise to work for peace.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Sue Haley
"The deal paves the way for direct peace talks"
Ranjith Withana, Federation of Sri Lankans
"Everyone is pretty hopeful that the ceasefire will hold"
See also:

22 Feb 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka's historic step hailed
22 Feb 02 | South Asia
Ceasefire signed in Sri Lanka
21 Feb 02 | South Asia
Analysis: Sri Lanka's fragile ceasefire
21 Feb 02 | South Asia
Peace deal in Sri Lanka
22 Feb 02 | South Asia
Text of Sri Lanka truce deal
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