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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 13:12 GMT
Sri Lanka PM visits troubled north
Civilians and soldiers in Jaffna
Soldiers mix with Tamil civilians
The Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, has gone to the army's frontline with Tamil Tiger rebels during a rare visit to the northern Jaffna peninsula.

He went into bunkers just 300 metres away from rebel positions - at a point where the Sri Lankan authorities plan to set up a checkpoint when the main north-south highway opens to civilian traffic.

It is the first visit by a Sri Lankan prime minister to Jaffna since the civil war began nearly two decades ago.

Mr Wickramasinghe came to power in December on a mandate to hold peace talks to end the fighting with Tamil rebels that has killed more than 64,000 people.

'Honouring truce'

"We have gone further down the road for peace than on earlier occasions," Mr Wickramasinghe told reporters.

He stressed to troops the importance of adhering to the ceasefire both sides are observing.

"If we honour the truce and ensure there are no violations, it will put pressure on the [Tamil Tigers] also to fall in line."

The Sri Lankan army has been in control of the Jaffna peninsula since 1995.

But the 40,000 troops there are cut off from the rest of the island by the Tigers and have to be supplied by air and sea.

Peace talks

The BBC's Frances Harrison, who is in the peninsula, says that by visiting the area, Mr Wickramasinghe is demonstrating his confidence in the peace process he started and his trust in the rebels not to attack.

Hopes for a negotiated settlement to the civil war have risen dramatically since the government and rebels last month agreed to make a temporary ceasefire permanent.

Ranil Wickramasinghe
Wickramasinghe - elected on a peace mandate
The agreement is seen as a prelude to face-to-face peace talks.

Our correspondent says the most difficult part still lies ahead - discussions on devolution of power to the north and east of the island, areas which are claimed by the Tigers as a Tamil homeland.

The prime minister has said nothing is ruled out, except the creation of a separate state.

US engagement

While in Jaffna, the prime minister is also expected to meet the United States Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca.

Ms Rocca is on a tour of the region, but the fact that she has scheduled this meeting in Jaffna and not in the capital, Colombo seems to send a clear message to both sides in this conflict that the US is playing a significant role behind the scenes.

Ms Rocca's visit to Jaffna will be followed by that of the deputy commander of the US marines on Friday.

See also:

10 Jan 02 | South Asia
Norway opens Sri Lanka peace talks
05 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka leader backs peace moves
04 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka's Tigers start talks
03 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka wants ceasefires strengthened
02 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka eases Tamil embargo
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