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Norway to `explore ways to move forward peace process'

By V.S. Sambandan

COLOMBO, NOV. 4. The Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister, Jan Petersen, is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka on a three-day visit next week "to explore" from the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) "possible ways" to take forward peace process and "to hear" from the two sides if they "wish to move toward" resumption of talks, stalled since last April.

Striking a far from optimistic note before his arrival here on November 10, Mr. Petersen said: "Based on signals received from the parties, I do not have high expectations. But in difficult situations it is even more important to keep engaging with the parties."

The twin-purpose of the visit, as Mr. Petersen put it before leaving Oslo, was to hear from the two sides "how" they intended to proceed to "improve respect for the ceasefire agreement," and more significantly, "whether they wish to move towards resuming negotiations."

Mr. Petersen is scheduled to meet the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga. A meeting with the LTTE leader, V. Prabakaran, is scheduled for November 11, the Norwegian embassy said.

Mr. Petersen, who will be accompanied by his Deputy, Vidar Helgesen, and Oslo's Special Adviser, Erik Solheim, recently met Ms. Kumaratunga (on September 23 in New York) and the LTTE's political wing leader, S.P. Tamilchelvan, (on October 20 in Oslo). But "some issues" remain to "be discussed further with the parties before they can resume negotiations," the embassy said.

It may be recalled that Mr. Petersen's visit earlier this year resulted in no major headway. Later, the Norwegian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr. Helgesen, after another futile bid to resume parleys, held out a caution on July 28, that the "frozen war" was "starting to melt at the edges."

Mr. Petersen's visit is also just ahead of the much-awaited annual November 27 `Heroes' Day' speech by Mr. Prabakaran, which according to political observers here, could contain a hard message or two.

Fatigue signals

The visit is also against the backdrop of signals of fatigue by the international community over the deadlock. Representatives of the international community have pointed out that the donors' attention span could shift from Sri Lanka to other conflict areas if the stalemate continues.

Attempts by the donor community to revive the stalled talks have remained futile since the LTTE's unilateral pullout from talks. The Tigers, who initially objected to being left out of a peace support conference held in Washington last year, pulled out of talks on April 21 last year, citing lack of progress in implementing the decisions taken at the talks held since September 2002.

Subsequently, it revived its initial demand for an interim administration for the north-east — the stated primary reason for the Tigers to agree to talks with the previous Ranil Wickremesinghe administration. After dismissing proposals made by Mr. Wickremesinghe's administration for a development-oriented structure as not meeting its "politico-administrative" requirements, the Tigers submitted a proposal for an Interim Self-Governing Authority for the North-East (ISGA) on October 31, 2003, seeking plenary powers in the northern and eastern districts, and want it to be "the basis" for resuming talks.

Changed situation

Political Sri Lanka has undergone a change during the last one year. Exactly a year ago, on November 4, 2003, — just after the ISGA proposals were submitted — Ms. Kumaratunga constitutionally took over the Defence portfolio following which the then premier, Mr. Wickremesinghe, renounced responsibility for the peace process.

He later lost office after this April's snap parliamentary poll. The political change was preceded by the LTTE's "worst internal crisis," when its former special commander, V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna) rebelled this March. Since then, the eastern districts are in a flux. `Col.' Karuna's rebellion was also attributed as a reason for LTTE not resuming talks. Significantly, the LTTE recently distanced itself from a possible federal model as a solution for the decades-long separatist conflict.

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