April 13, 2006

S.Lanka’s Tigers say will go to talks

By Peter Apps

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels said on
Thursday they will attend peace talks in Switzerland,
surprising diplomats who had taken a string of lethal attacks
in recent days to mean the meeting was off.

Repeated suspected rebel attacks on government forces and
ethnic violence had killed more than 40 people over the past
week in the bloodiest week since a 2002 ceasefire, sharply
raising fears of a return to civil war.

"The Geneva talks will happen," head of the rebel peace
secretariat, S. Puleedevan, told Reuters by satellite phone
from Kilinochchi, the de facto rebel capital. "But the dates
will have to be moved by a bit. We will go once we have met our
eastern commanders from April 15 to 22."

The government said it was committed to the peace process
and the Geneva talks but had so far not agreed to any
postponement. That decision would be made by President Mahinda
Rajapakse, the head of the government peace secretariat Palitha
Kohona said.

"It would require major changes to our logistics," he told
Reuters, adding that the government still intended to attend
the talks at their previously agreed dates of April 19-21.

The government's refusal to grant safe conduct for a Sea
Tiger vessel bringing eastern rebel leaders to Kilinochchi had
been the key sticking point.

But the rebels said they were now willing for their
commanders to travel by civilian ferry escorted by the head of
the Nordic ceasefire monitoring mission, Swedish Major-General
Ulf Henricsson, who met with the head of the rebel political
wing on Tuesday shortly before the Tiger announcement.

Diplomats said they were surprised by the last-minute
statement, but that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
were known for their brinksmanship. One said he would only be
confident the meeting would happen when they actually sat down.

In January, suspected rebel attacks pushed the island to
the edge of war before the LTTE agreed to the first round of
Geneva talks, which took place in February.


Wednesday was the bloodiest day since the truce, with 16
people killed in blasts the army blamed on the rebels and in
the ethnic riot that followed in the northeastern port of

A mob from the island's majority Sinhalese community
attacked Tamil shops. The rebels accused the army of supporting
the mob but the military said they restored order as fast as

Streets of the town were deserted on Thursday, with
soldiers on patrol and burned vehicles littering the area.

Earlier on Thursday, the Tigers also accused the army of
killing two rebels in two separate ambushes -- a charge the
military again denied. Four Tamil civilians were killed by
unknown gunmen in the northern army enclave of Jaffna.

The two-decade civil war killed more than 64,000 people
before the 2002 ceasefire. But tensions have remained high
between the rebels and the government.

There is still no common ground -- and plenty of historic
hatred -- between the two sides, and President Mahinda
Rajapakse has repeatedly ruled out rebel demands for a separate
Tamil homeland in the island's north and east.

Puleedevan said the rebels would talk in Switzerland about
Tamil armed groups -- including renegade ex-Tigers the Karuna
group -- who they say the army uses to attack them. But
diplomats say recent violence will weaken their bargaining
position. "If the talks had happened two weeks ago, the Tigers
would have been almost praised for their restraint and the
government would have been chastised for not disarming the
armed groups," said a Western diplomat on condition of
anonymity. "But now, that position is reversed."