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Sri Lanka talks get underway in Geneva

S. P. Thamilselvan, left, of the Tamil Tigers shakes hands with Nimal Siripala De Silva, right, of the Sri Lanka government

(Keystone)

Talks between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels started in Geneva on Saturday against a backdrop of escalating bloodshed in Sri Lanka.

Opening the two-day negotiations, Swiss ambassador Heidi Tagliavini called for both sides in the longstanding conflict to respect international human rights law.

This is the second time the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tigers have met in Geneva. After talks in February they agreed to stop all forms of violence but since then the country has slipped towards renewed civil war amid recriminations on both sides.

These talks, mediated by Norway and hosted by Switzerland, are aimed at trying to halt the violence.

In her speech, Tagliavini, the deputy head of the Swiss foreign ministry's Political Affairs Directorate, said she was pleased that the two sides had decided to return to Geneva. She said it was a sign of confidence in all parties.

But she underlined that the current critical situation had made it urgent to hold talks.

"Switzerland, as the depositary State of the Geneva Conventions, feels it cannot forgo its responsibility to remind the parties to the conflict of their obligations to respect international humanitarian law, in particular to protect civilians from the effects of armed conflict," Tagliavini said.

"Respect not only for one's own rights but for the rights of the other party makes the subsequent search for peace easier – an objective that we all, Sri Lankans and non Sri Lankans alike, must never lose sight of."

She said that meeting would be an opportunity to build on these principles and create something of lasting benefit for the Sri Lankan population.

The Geneva talks would be a success if "the situation of the civilian population improves and the violence subsides," added Tagliavini.

For his part, Erik Solheim, Norway's international development minister who is facilitating the talks, told the delegations that it was essential to cool the conflict.

"Even at the most difficult times there is need for dialogue," Solheim said.

Blame

Both the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are fighting for a separate homeland, blame each other for the upsurge in fighting that has seen up to 1,000 combatants and civilians killed since July.

Although both sides insist the 2002 ceasefire – brokered by Norway – remains in place, there is open conflict in the north and east of the country.

On Saturday a suspected Tamil Tiger rebel shot a government solider and wounded six police officers in two bomb attacks in the northeast.

Observers have reservations about the Geneva meeting. Many believe that the best that can come out it is that both parties agree to hold further talks – a view shared by the head of Sri Lanka's peace secretariat, Palitha Kohona.

"I think it [the goal] is for the two parties to continue being engaged in the discussions, because, as we all know, this conflict has lasted for over 25 years and we don't expect it to be resolved in a hurry," he told swissinfo ahead of the talks.

Kohona stressed that government was determined to bring this conflict to an end through peaceful means.

Good offices

This is a term used to describe initiatives taken by a third party to stop litigation or make contact easier between two conflicting parties. More ...

Demands

Anton Ponrajah, head of the Swiss Federation of Tamil Associations, told swissinfo a key rebel demand would be for the government to lift an "economic blockade" of the Jaffna peninsula and the northeast.

The government claims it is the LTTE that is responsible for stopping food and other supplies reaching these areas.

Ponrajah, who is also secretary-general of the Geneva-based International Federation of Tamils, said the LTTE was committed to a peaceful solution and he hoped that the international community would pressure the Sri Lankan government to ensure this happened.

"The government has to work out how the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples can live together, because after 60 years we are no closer to resolving the issue and the gap is becoming wider," he said.

swissinfo

In brief

The Swiss government is providing logistical support for the meeting, which is being facilitated by Norwegian diplomats.

Swiss ambassador Heidi Tagliavini opened the talks on Saturday alongside Norway's minister for international development, Erik Solheim.

In March this year the Swiss government doubled its aid commitment for post-tsunami reconstruction in Sri Lanka, pledging a further SFr10.9 million ($8.7 million).

But the return to violence has seriously disrupted relief and reconstruction work in conflict areas – 17 aid workers were shot dead in the northeast in August.

end of infobox

Key facts

Civil war broke out in 1983.
65,000 people were killed before a Norwegian-brokered truce in 2002.
The rebels want a self-ruled homeland for the country's minority Tamils.
The government says it can offer autonomy, but not a separate state.
More than 35,000 Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils, live in Switzerland.

end of infobox


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