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Wednesday, November 10, 1999 Published at 19:25 GMT

World: South Asia

Sri Lankan calls for Tiger talks

Sri Lankan troops load up supplies in government-held Vavuniya

Sri Lanka's opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has called for talks with separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, saying the government has failed in its military strategy.

The success of the Tigers in capturing strategic military bases had put an end to the myth that the military campaign would crush the rebels, he said.

Susannah Price in Colombo: Military defeats now placed firmly on the political agenda
Mr Wickremesinghe, a former prime minister, belongs to the main opposition United National Party and is a contender in next month's presidential elections.

He said he would start talks with the Tamil Tigers if he won the elections.

"My plan is to take the first step," he told a meeting of foreign correspondents.

"I am not promising peace in 24 hours...we have to start a confidence building process," he said.

Click here to see a map of the warzone

He said the military setbacks could not be blamed on the soldiers who, he said, were tired and overstretched.

"[The] president, and president alone must take responsibility for this debacle," he said.

Refugee crisis

Fighting continued in the north and northeast on Wednesday as government forces attempted to regroup after the recent losses.

[ image: Refugees are fleeing the fighting in the north]
Refugees are fleeing the fighting in the north
Soldiers continued to hold position in the strategic garrison town of Vavuniya, 260 km north of Colombo and now only 20 km from the frontline.

Tamil Tiger forces have captured the key military bases of Oddusudan, Nedunkerni and Mankulam, which is located on the main highway leading to the northern Jaffna region.

Humanitarian agencies have expressed concern about a call from the Tigers for civilians to leave Vavuniya.

On Monday, aid agencies said they were concerned about the plight of civilians who were coming under indiscriminate fire from both sides.

Devolution plan

Last week President Kumaratunga attacked the opposition for failing to support her peace package for the Tamil rebels.

[ image:  ]
Ms Kumaratunga had offered a devolution plan which allowed for the minority Tamil community to administer their own region.

But the package got stalled in parliament because it failed to get a two-thirds majority.

The Tigers have now regained a large proportion of the land taken by the army during its 19-month offensive - Operation Jayasikuru, or Victory Assured - which was abandoned last December.

The latest setback is one of the military's worst in the 16-year ethnic war and analysts say it will affect President Kumaratunga's chances of re-election.

The LTTE is fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka. More than 55,000 people have been killed.

[ image:  ]

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