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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 12:56 GMT
Sri Lanka prepares ground for talks
Northern Sri Lanka
The opening of the road to the north is a good sign
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By Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Colombo
line

The Sri Lankan Government has begun the process of formally asking a foreign country for permission to host peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels, Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando said.


So far all the Sri Lankan Government has said is that nothing is ruled out, except a separate state

The minister would not reveal which country was being approached, although the Maldives and Thailand have been the two most discussed options.

Both sides say they have left the decision on a venue to the Norwegian mediators.

But Mr Fernando said only the government could make the formal request to a foreign country and that process has now begun.

Promising indications

The foreign minister said the important thing was not where the talks would be held, but the fact that they were going to take place at all.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickramisinghe
The prime minister is now popular in Tamil areas

The Sri Lankan Government expects the talks to start before the middle of the year.

One promising indication that things are moving is the imminent return from exile of the Tamil Tiger's chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham.

Reports suggest Dr Balasingham and his Australian wife will travel to rebel-held territory via the Maldives in the next few days, although it is not clear if they will transit through Colombo or go straight to north-eastern Sri Lanka by sea.

The idea behind the visit is for Dr Balasingham to be able to consult with the rebel leadership before peace talks.

Another sign of progress is that the foreign minister expects the land route to Jaffna to open in early April.

Sincerity

He says the commitment of the rebel leader to opening the highway is a very clear indication of his sincerity regarding the peace process.

If anything, the delay seems to have been on the government side.

Funds for the construction of the necessary checkpoints by the military were only released after Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe visited the Jaffna Peninsula last week.

According to the ceasefire agreement between the two sides they only have to agree to the modalities of opening the highway within 30 days of signing.

The actual opening can follow thereafter.

Of all the measures aimed at creating the right atmosphere for peace talks the opening of the A-9 highway as it is known is probably the most significant.

And it looks as if it will soon be implemented, despite what appears to be some resistance from the Sri Lankan military.

The people of Jaffna too regard the opening of the road as the single most important step to improve the local economy - because they will no longer be land-locked and goods will be able to flow in and out of the region.

Optimism

Perhaps the most optimistic sign is there has been no significant backlash against the peace process yet from the majority Sinhalese community or the Buddhist clergy.

Tamil children
Confidence is high that the peace process will succeed

Impressive local council election results seem to have endorsed the current government's efforts to resolve the peace process, despite an overall low turnout.

But there is no doubt the Prime Minister's moves towards peace have made him popular among the war weary Tamil minority in the north of Sri Lanka who did not vote in the local polls.

So far there has been little debate about what the final solution might be.

There is discussion of a future confederation of the north and east of Sri Lanka and the rest of the country, although some government officials say they prefer a federation because they believe that would not allow rebel areas to secede.

There is also concern about how much devolution of power neighbouring India would countenance to Tamil areas of Sri Lanka.

So far all the Sri Lankan Government has said is that nothing is ruled out, except a separate state.

The rebel side for its part has made a number of statements suggesting it might be willing to settle for something just short of a separate state.

See also:

16 Mar 02 | South Asia
US backs Sri Lanka peace process
14 Mar 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka PM visits troubled north
11 Mar 02 | South Asia
US criticises Tamil Tigers
10 Jan 02 | South Asia
Norway opens Sri Lanka peace talks
02 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka eases Tamil embargo
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