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Monday, 16 September, 2002, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Upbeat opening for Sri Lanka talks
Sri Lanka Constitutional Affairs Minister GL Peiris (left) talks with Chief Negotiator and leader of the Tamil Tigers delegation Anton Balasingham
Both sides said they were serious about peace efforts
Delegates from the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tiger rebels have begun peace talks in Thailand.


Together we repudiate today a legacy of rancour and hatred which has torn asunder the fabric of our nation for decades

G L Peiris
Constitutional affairs minister
The talks, which are the first formal negotiations in seven years, are taking place behind closed doors in a Thai naval base in the town of Pattaya, under tight security.

Speaking at the talks' opening ceremony, Tamil Tiger delegation head Anton Balasingham said he was confident that a peaceful solution could be found.

"We are confident the talks will succeed because the principal parties in the conflict and the vast majority of the people want a resolution of the conflict," he said.

Colombo's Constitutional Affairs Minister G L Peiris said the 19-year civil war was "behind us".

"Together we repudiate today a legacy of rancour and hatred which has torn asunder the fabric of our nation for decades," he said.

Norwegian diplomats, who have been mediating in the conflict, have warned it might take years before a final settlement is reached.

However, the United States has said it is hopeful of a desirable outcome this time.

Face to face

The organisers say the four delegates from each side will sit facing one another at the negotiating table, with Norwegian diplomats present, during the 12 hours of talks spread over three days.

Diplomats have warned that this phase of negotiations is expected to last months, if not years, and it may be much longer before a final political settlement is in place.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

The BBC's Frances Harrison in Pattaya says this echoes words of caution from members of the government delegation, who have said the peace process had to be stable and steady and would not bring quick results.

But there is also a great deal of optimism that this, the fourth attempt to end the Sri Lankan civil war, will eventually succeed.

A permanent ceasefire has held for seven months and the Sri Lankan Government has done away with many punitive measures imposed on rebel territory, where up to half a million people live.

Freedom

Freedom of movement has been restored across the island, with thousands of people daily crossing what were once front-lines and being reunited with lost family and friends.

Reconstruction work has begun on a limited scale in the conflict area, but the Sri Lankan government estimates it needs half a billion US dollars to rebuild the basic infrastructure in the north and east.

Government officials say there is now a convergence of factors that make an end to the war more likely.

Overwhelming support

Opinion polls suggest the Sri Lankan public and especially the business community, overwhelmingly supports a negotiated settlement now.

The American-led war on terror has made it more difficult for the Tamil Tigers to pursue their goal through military means, when they are banned in many western countries as terrorists.

And a new government in Colombo seems to have abandoned its predecessor's approach of trying to weaken the Tigers on the battlefield so as to force them to the negotiating table.

The result in recent months has seen an increase in informal contacts between high-level officials on both sides and a growing rapport emerging in their public statements.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Phil Mercer in Thailand
"This is the first time in seven years the two sides have faced each other"
The BBC's Frances Harrison in Thailand
"The Tigers must know a separate state is not on the agenda"

Peace efforts

Background

BBC SINHALA SERVICE

BBC TAMIL SERVICE

TALKING POINT
See also:

14 Sep 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
13 Sep 02 | South Asia
16 Sep 02 | South Asia
13 Sep 02 | Business
11 Sep 02 | South Asia
09 Sep 02 | South Asia
09 Sep 02 | South Asia
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