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 Wednesday, 1 January, 2003, 12:54 GMT
Sri Lanka army plays down row
Tamil Tiger delegates (left) meet government negotiators
Two rounds of talks have already taken place

The Sri Lankan army commander has expressed hopes that the current peace talks will succeed.

Commander Lionel Balagalle told reporters in Colombo that minor problems between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels could be ironed out in discussions.

For the Tigers it is also a question of showing their own people that peace means they can finally go home and restart their lives

His remarks come as relations have soured over an army suggestion that the rebels disarm before tens of thousands of civilians be allowed to resettle in military security zones.

The suggestion has led to angry statements from the rebel side who have accused the Sri Lankan army of taking a hardline position.

The Sri Lankan army chief is playing down the current dispute with the Tamil Tigers - saying their suggestion that the rebels disarm was merely a proposal for discussion.

Dispute

The document - written by the Jaffna Security Forces commander, Major General Sarath Foneska - is said to have suggested the rebels disarm and reposition long-range guns before the refugees be allowed to occupy their homes inside high security zones in the Jaffna Peninsula.

But government and military officials now say the concept of disarmament was not sufficiently defined in the army document and only meant some de-escalation rather than every rebel fighter giving up arms.

Sri Lankan soldiers
Army proposals have caused a row
Officials also admit the army's proposal probably met with an angry response from the rebel side because it referred to them as terrorists on at least one occasion as well as containing grammatical errors.

The Secretary of Defence Austin Fernando said he had not been contacted by the rebels since the dispute arose but hoped that the matter could be resolved in the next round of peace talks due to start on Monday in Thailand.

But the Tamil Tigers have warned the issue must be addressed before they can engage in detailed discussion on core political issues.

The Tigers believe there are nearly 150,000 people who cannot return home because of the army's high security zones but even the numbers are disputed.

The army says 36,000 people are affected while government officials say it is 80,000.

Suspicion

The problem is the army suspects the Tigers have more than just humanitarian motives for wanting civilians resettled in military zones.

The army believes the return of refugees to sensitive areas like the Palali air base would compromise their security and disturb the current balance of power between the two sides.

But for the Tigers it is also a question of showing their own people that peace means they can finally go home and restart their lives.


Peace efforts

Background

BBC SINHALA SERVICE

BBC TAMIL SERVICE

TALKING POINT
See also:

26 Dec 02 | South Asia
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