Monday, Feb 25, 2002
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By Nirupama Subramanian
COLOMBO, Feb. 24. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose Government began a landmark truce with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on Saturday, said today "talks about talks'' was the next item on his peace agenda, followed by direct negotiations on a political settlement to the island's conflict. ``We signed the ceasefire to create an atmosphere free of violence, free of conflict, so that talks can begin. We have dealt with the humanitarian issues and now we have a ceasefire. The next step is to have talks about talks and then begin negotiations,'' Mr. Wickremesinghe said at a news conference today.
This is the first time since April 1995, when the LTTE withdrew from a ceasefire and peace talks with the then Government through an attack on the Trincomallee harbour, that the two sides are observing a unilateral truce. The Prime Minister acknowledged that the road ahead was difficult, said he would take it "step by step'', and expressed confidence that finally, the goal of peace would be reached.
He asked the international community, which had pressed Sri Lanka to begin talks with the LTTE, to ensure that the group would come to the negotiating table and begin discussions on a solution that would be acceptable to all Sri Lankans. Mr. Wickremesinghe said he would place no conditions or restrictions that might prevent the LTTE from participating in negotiations, except that there would be no division of the country as a solution to the two decade-old armed separatist conflict.
``We cannot be too rigid with regard to talks. We should first get the LTTE to the table. I am not saying `no' to anything except a separate state,'' he said, adding that he was proceeding on the assumption that the LTTE would have scaled down its goal of an independent Eelam in the light of the international situation after September 11. Mr. Wickremesinghe said he believed the two sides to be broadly agreed on devolution as a means to resolve the conflict but predicted the main stumbling blocks in the process would arise during talks.
``Now we have to engage each other on substantive issues. That is where the main issues, the problems may come. We must know where we stand, what the gaps are. Let them put what they have on the agenda, and we will put what we have,'' he said.
Defending the Norway-brokered truce agreement from Opposition accusations that it was a sell-out to the LTTE, Mr. Wickremesinghe denied that the Government had made any "concessions''. ``We have taken into account the reality on the ground and devised rules to govern that reality,'' he said. International ceasefire monitors from Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway will arrive in the country on Monday. They will function in teams with Sri Lankan monitors and report to Norway, the facilitator of the peace process.
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