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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 13:23 GMT
Sri Lanka's historic step hailed
Sri Lankan soldier has his palm read in Vavuniya
Sri Lankans are hopeful that peace is in sight
The historic ceasefire agreement signed by the Sri Lankan Government and Tamil Tiger rebels has been widely welcomed as the first step towards eventual peace.

However, international observers as well as Sri Lankans emphasise that moving ahead to the next stage would not be quite as easy.

The hardest part is ahead

Norway peace envoy Erik Solheim
Norway, which brokered the truce deal, said the move was an important breakthrough.

"It feels very good and so many people have worked so hard for so long but the hardest part is ahead," Norway's peace envoy, Erik Solheim, said.

"This is a basis for future efforts. You can't sit and negotiate when people are shooting at each other."

The country's Deputy Prime Minister, Vidar Helgesen, added the agreement paved the way for peace talks which could begin later in the year. "It is much more than a technical cease-fire. It is building confidence," he said.


Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, who made an unprecedented visit to the frontline town of Vavuniya, cautioned that the truce would not be the end of the war.

Chandrika Kumaratunga
President Kumaratunga has voiced reservations

"I have a strong belief that we will have peace, but I have no illusion that it will be easy," he said.

In a sign of the political pitfalls ahead, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose party lost to Mr Wickramasinghe's United National Party in the last general elections, said she was bypassed in the peace process.

For the first time I feel I have some freedom

Tamil cobbler P Perayapillai
"The president expressed surprise and concern that she was being informed, for the first time, of the contents of the agreement after it was signed by (Tamil Tiger leader) Mr V Prabhakaran and just a few hours before the prime minister proposed to put his signature to it," a statement from her office said.

However, she said she was committed to the peace process and "to a negotiated settlement of the ethnic problem, leading to an early end to the military conflict within a united, multi-ethnic and democratic state".

Tamil relief

In Tamil majority areas in Sri Lanka, hundreds of Tamils visited temples and made offerings on what was seen as a historic day.

"For the first time I feel I have some freedom," P Perayapillai, a cobbler, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press in Vavuniya.

In the capital Colombo, some 200 kilometres to the south, reaction was mixed.

"This is good, but can we trust Prabhakaran?" Sumana Gamage, a restaurant worker asked.

"I want peace, but I don't want peace with fear of being attacked in the future," he added.

Newspapers were unambiguous, however, in their reactions.

"After almost three months of intense negotiations┐ a historic breakthrough has been achieved," the state-owned Daily News said.

The independent Daily Mirror summed up the mood in its headline which read: "D-Day today".

The BBC's Neil Ross
"There have been signs that the people of Sri Lanka have tired of the bloodshed"
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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