- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

From combined dispatches
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka Tamil Tiger rebels yesterday entered peace deals with mainstream Tamil political parties and minority Muslims of Sri Lanka ahead of Norwegian-backed talks to end the island's drawn-out separatist war, it was announced here.
According to sources and media reports, legislators from mainstream Tamil parties and the head of a Muslim party met with rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in his northern hide-out in an apparent bid to form a united front heading into peace talks.
Norway's Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen arrived in Colombo yesterday to finalize arrangements for the talks.
The rebels and the government signed a Norwegian-sponsored cease-fire on Feb. 22, and the two sides are scheduled to begin negotiations for a full settlement next month in Thailand.
Although parties representing Sri Lanka's Tamil minority had never opposed the LTTE, their open support now is expected to strengthen the rebels before the talks. The parleys are aimed at ending an 18-year separatist war that has left more than 64,500 people dead.
Fourteen lawmakers of the moderate four-party Tamil National Alliance met Friday with Mr. Prabhakaran and his close aides in Kilinochchi and agreed to work under the LTTE chief, a Tamil Web site reported.
The Tamil Eelam News Service, which provides the Tamil perspective of the civil war, quoted the alliance members as saying they consider the rebel group to be the "sole representative of the Tamil people."
The meeting and its outcome were confirmed by rebel sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The alliance has 15 members in the 225-seat parliament and supports Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's government. One lawmaker did not attend the meeting due to ill health but backed the decision to support the rebels.
The Muslims were led by Ports Minister Rauf Hakeem, head of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which is lobbying to give the 8 percent Muslim minority a say in the peace talks between rebels and a government dominated by the majority Sinhalese.
The SLMC said Mr. Prabhakaran agreed to allow 100,000 Muslims hounded out of the rebels' strongholds in the north and east 12 years ago to return to their original homes.
The Tamil Tigers also agreed to immediately stop collecting "taxes" from the minority Muslims in the island's eastern province, Mr. Hakeem said after the meeting.
The Tamil alliance's support for the rebels is seen as indication the Tigers are willing to discuss autonomy for Tamil areas, instead of the outright independence they have demanded since 1983. The alliance opposes dividing Sri Lanka but favors greater political autonomy for Tamil-majority areas in the north and the east.
Tamils comprise about 18 percent of Sri Lanka's 18.6 million people, while Sinhalese make up 74 percent.
On Wednesday, in his first news conference in 15 years, Mr. Prabhakaran said he is not yet ready to abandon the demand for an independent Tamil state but was willing to discuss the establishment of an interim administration.
In addition to an exact location and date for the talks, another key issue remains unresolved a rebel demand that a ban on their organization be lifted before any negotiations begin.

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