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Wednesday, 27 March, 2002, 11:03 GMT
Sri Lanka peace talks in May
Tamil Tiger guerrillas with Tamil child
The government says it can offer the rebels autonomy
The Sri Lankan Government is to hold historic face-to-face peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels in May aimed at ending the country's 18-year civil war.

Both sides agree that the time is opportune to commence negotiations

Justice Minister GL Peiris

Justice Minister GL Peiris said negotiations would open in the first week of the month, but declined to say where they would take place.

Official sources are quoted as saying Thailand is being considered as a venue for the talks, which have been brokered by Norway.

Mr Peiris told journalists that Norway's deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgesen, will travel to Sri Lanka next month to prepare ground work for the talks.

The rebels said on Wednesday that talks would begin when a cease-fire accord signed a month ago is fully implemented.

Significant steps

On Tuesday, Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran met Norwegian mediators who brokered the accord as part of efforts to pave the way for direct negotiations with the government, reports said.

Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran
The Tigers have been fighting for two decades

The talks began a day after the Tigers' chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, returned to Sri Lanka after three years in self-imposed exile.

Correspondents said that was another significant step towards direct peace talks between the two sides.

Mr Balasingham, who holds a British passport and lives in London, flew in directly to a rebel-held area of the island on a sea-plane from the neighbouring Maldives.

The AFP news agency said he wanted a face-to-face meeting with Mr Prabhakaran before sitting down to formal political talks.

The rebels want a 1998 ban on their organisation to be lifted before they enter peace negotiations.

A BBC correspondent in Colombo, Amal Jayasinghe, says the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe appears willing to discuss the issue.

The Tigers have been fighting for a separate homeland for almost two decades.

The government has said in recent weeks that it is prepared to offer regional autonomy but rejects the carving out of a separate entity.

See also:

25 Mar 02 | South Asia
Tamil rebel returns home
14 Mar 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka PM visits troubled north
02 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka eases Tamil embargo
22 Mar 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka prepares ground for talks
25 Mar 02 | South Asia
Boost for Sri Lanka peace hopes
22 Feb 02 | South Asia
Ceasefire signed in Sri Lanka
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