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Angry crowd which tried to jostle with Minister Dinesh
Gunewarden when he tried to settle the row over the demolition 
of the Punchi Borella shrine room being restraiend by the 
Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera and the minister's 
bodyguards. Pic. by Ranjith Perera.

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New demands: talks at crossroads

Confusion over LTTE's fresh conditions as Norwegian ambassador returns from Wanni 
By Our Political Editor
Norwegian facilitated peace talks ran into jeopardy last night after pro-LTTE website TamilNet claimed that the guerrillas had insisted on the ban on the organisation being lifted prior to the start of peace talks but highly-placed government sources insisted that no such demands were made.

These sources confirmed to The Sunday Times last night that the subject of lifting the ban on the LTTE as well as a ceasefire prior to talks was discussed at yesterday's meeting in the Wanni between Norway's Ambassador Jon Westborg and LTTE's Political Wing leader S.P. Thamil Chelvan.

These sources, however, said these were not conditions placed by the LTTE for talks and were in fact part of a general discussion at the tail end of six hours of deliberations 'on the nitty-gritties' of a proposed agreement on Humanitarian Relief that is to precede talks.

An LTTE news release quoted by TamilNet said Mr. Chelvan had quite categorically told Ambassador Westborg last afternoon "we will not under any circumstances participate at these negotiations as an outlawed outfit."

However, Government circles were sceptical about the LTTE statement which appeared in the TamilNet website. One source said talks between Mr. Westborg and the LTTE were cordial and had taken place on a positive note. "So much so, as a goodwill gesture after his visit, the LTTE even released four prisoners," the source said. 

Contrary to Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar's expectations, declared in Parliament, that a date for talks would be known before the end of the current month, the two new tough conditions seemed impossible for the Government to meet. Under such conditions the possibility of talks in the near future remains highly unlikely.

Despite widespread media speculation, Mr. Westborg was not scheduled to meet LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, during the Wanni visit. A meeting with Mr. Chelvan and others had been scheduled.

The primary purpose was to ascertain from the LTTE the dates for upcoming negotiations. This was to be formally announced by the government. Mr. Westborg was also to ascertain from the LTTE matters relating to 'restricted' items on which the Government wanted to make concessions including the volume of diesel, petrol and cement to be released to LTTE controlled areas. Such exceptions were to be embodied in a Norwegian brokered agreement on humanitarian relief which was to deal with two categories of goods - banned items and restricted items. Some modifications were being made by Mr. Westborg to a draft agreement he had carried. 

Although Mr. Westborg has not been able to obtain a date for peace talks, the source said, the Government was confident a date would be obtained very soon, and the government would be able to keep to its promise to announce a date for peace talks before the end of this month. 

A Ministry of Defence letter which had erroneously referred to a lifting of a purported ban on 24 items was to give rise to media speculation that the Government had relaxed the movement of several items that could be moved to uncontrolled areas in the Wanni. (See Situation Report on Page 9 for details.)

There was concern at the highest level that Mr. Westborg was snubbed by the LTTE yesterday, when he was on one of the final phases of Norwegian efforts to facilitate peace talks. 

Asked to comment on the latest development, Ambassador Westborg told The Sunday Times last night on his return to Colombo "it would not be appropriate for me to comment on anything right now. I am trying to reach President Kumaratunga to give her a full report. I will thereafter say what I have to say."

The new LTTE demands quoted by TamilNet have been dismissed by the Government during various phases of discussions with Norway's Special Envoy Erik Solheim. President Kumaratunga herself made it clear that a continuing ban on the LTTE by the Government should not be a deterrent to peace talks. 

She cited the case of Britain where the Government was talking to the Irish Republican Army, though it was officially banned. She has also explained to Mr. Solheim that the LTTE demand for an acceptance of its unilateral ceasefire was not possible. This was in view of the past experience of the LTTE reneging on previous ceasefires and the problems it posed to the Security Forces. 

A ministerial source who wished to remain anonymous said last night "it would be impossible for the Government to lift a ban on a terrorist organisation when it had appealed to all other countries to ban them. Even Britain named the LTTE as a terrorist group last month."

He said the new conditions were placed because "the LTTE is not interested in any talks but wanted to continue terrorist activity." He also pointed out that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran during his first meeting with Mr. Solheim placed two different pre requisites a de-escalation of the hostilities and a lifting of a so-called economic embargo. But now they are insisting on the withdrawal of the long standing ban.

Political observers say the LTTE statement quoted by TamilNet is a spanner in the works towards impending peace talks and it was worth analysing the line if the Norwegian facilitator is reporting nothing unusual as that the road to peace talks is on course.

Excerpts from an LTTE statement posted in the TamilNet:

"Mr. S.P.Tamil Chelvan, the Head of the Political Wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has called upon the government of Sri Lanka to lift the ban on his organisation and reciprocate positively to the LTTE's unilateral cease-fire as essential pre-requisites for the commencement of political negotiations. This message was conveyed through the Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo Jon Westborg when he had lengthy discussions with the political leaders of the LTTE in Mallavi, Vanni, northern Sri Lanka yesterday and today morning.

"Mr. Jon Westborg and an official of the Norwegian Embassy, Mr. Tomas Strangland, arrived in Mallavi, Vanni yesterday afternoon and engaged in a marathon discussion for six hours last night with the LTTE's political wing leaders. The discussions continued for more than two hours in the morning today before the Norwegians left for Colombo. 

"Presenting the LTTE's position on peace talks Mr. Tamil Chelvan insisted that a climate of peace and goodwill conducive for talks should be created before the commencement of political negotiations.

"We have argued that it would be difficult to hold talks while engaging in a bloody war. Irrespective of the belligerent stand taken by the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE had unilaterally declared cease-fire and has been extending the truce for the last few months. This measure clearly demonstrates our sincere determination to seek peace and a negotiated settlement. 

""We are glad to note that the Sri Lanka government has finally realised the importance of talking to the Tamil Tigers to resolve the ethnic conflict. This realisation entails a recognition that the LTTE is the preponderant representative organisation of our people. Therefore, the time has come for the Kumaratunga government to lift the ban on the LTTE and embrace us at the peace table as the authentic representatives of the Tamil people. We will not under any circumstances participate at the peace negotiations as an outlawed outfit'', the LTTE's political wing leader told the Norwegian Ambassador.


What parties say

Government ministers yesterday expressed surprise or dismay over the latest conditions put forward by the LTTE for talks, while the main opposition UNP remained non-committal.

Minister and PA General Secretary D. M. Jayaratne said no official intimation had been received of the LTTE's demands for the ban on the group to be lifted before the talks begin.

He said the matter would be discussed at the highest level, but he believed talks without preconditions would be the best course.

Minister Alavi Moulana said he believed both sides should start talking without preconditions and he believed much could be achieved after that.

He called for talks to begin as early as possible. 

UNP media spokesman Karunasena Kodituwakku said the issue was sensitive and he could not comment until it was fully studied. 

TULF Vice President V. Anandasangari said he believed the lifting of the ban on the LTTE would be a good confidence-building measure. PLOTE leader Dharmalingam Siddarathan said if the LTTE was really interested in peace, it would talks with or without the ban. But TELO leader. S. Adaikalanathan said lifting of the ban would improve the climate for talks. 


Tigers taking ban without a bang

From Neville De Silva in London
The LTTE has opted for a low profile since the British Government brought into force its Terrorism Act 2000 which outlaws the LTTE along with 20 other organisations perceived as terrorist groups.

Photographs of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, videos of Tiger military actions and other propaganda material that were found in many Tamil-owned shops across London have disappeared from view. Journalists who have been trying to contact Eelam House, one time the international secretariat of the LTTE, found that it had gone silent.

The banning of the LTTE is worrying the average Tamil here even though he or she is no Tiger activist or even supporter. Tiger apologists writing from Canada mentioned that Tamils in Britain were planning major protests against the ban.

Most Tamils I've had occasion to discuss the issue say they could not care less.

"We have our jobs to look after, our families to feed and our mortgages to pay. These are the matters that concern us and affect us," said an owner of several shops. Asked how others felt about it, he said his friends and those known to him felt the same way.

"We are here because of what is happening in Sri Lanka. We are not here because we like it. I'm ready to go home as soon as this is solved," said an accountant who has been here for 20 years.

"Of course those who are involved in politics, those who came here as asylum seekers will feel differently and they may protest. But the vast majority are not going to demonstrate because they can't see the point in it or don't want to jeopardise their chances here," a Tamil restaurant owner said.


Fine ride for VIP's Benz

A shipping agent who was allegedly involved in the importing of a luxury car for a Minister with a wrong name has got away with a fine of a mere Rs. 25 though the normal penalty is Rs. 100,000.

The vehicle, Mercedes Benz valued at about Rs. 1. 8 m, had been imported for Minister Mahinda Wijesekara, but the documents had contained the name of PA MP Ediriweera Weerawardena.

The Customs had directed the Ports Authority not to release the vehicle which was liable to be seized.

Five days after the vehicle arrived the shipping agent had submitted an amendment to change the consignee's name as Minister Mahinda Wijesekara.

The Customs in their inquiries had noted a penalty of Rs. 100,000 was imposed in similar cases. Minister Wijesekara had written to the Customs Assistant Director claiming some intervening holidays had delayed the proper procedure in the changing of the name. The vehicle was then released on the payment of a fine of Rs. 25.


Backstage barter on budget vote

By Chris Kamalendran and Nilika de Silva
The National Unity Alliance and the Ceylon Workers Congress which together play a make or break role in a shaky parliament are demanding implementation of promises given to them by the ruling PA amidst reports of an alleged conspiracy by the UNP to topple the government at Wednesday's vote on the budget.

The NUA and the CWC at separate meetings with President Chandrika Kumaratunga on the eve of the budget vote are expected to put forward their demands including the developing of schools, health sector and housing and more jobs.

NUA leaders are scheduled to meet the President on Tuesday while the CWC is also expecting an appointment before the vote, party sources said.

The meetings come in the wake of charges by President Kumaratunga that the UNP was planning to defeat the budget, with the support of minority parties and by buying over or even abducting some PA members.

The President at a meeting with PA coalition partners on Wednesday referred to reports that the CWC was planning to vote against the budget. But CWC MP, Muthu Sivalingam who was representing party leader Arumugam Thondaman denied any such move.

The President reportedly claimed she had information about those who were behind the conspiracy to defeat the budget and details of the offers made. In Parliament on Friday, the PA was in full strength amidst reports that the opposition was planning to defeat the vote for Minister Mangala Samaraweera's Urban Development Ministry in the aftermath of a row over the demolition of a Buddhist shrine at Punchi Borella.

The President also directed all PA MPs not to go to their electorates on the eve of the budget and to ensure their presence at voting time.

Minister Thondaman told The Sunday Times that the CWC would ask that education, housing and health sectors in plantation areas be improved.

He said he had given an assurance that the CWC would not vote against the budget but the party was also insisting that the promises given to it be implemented.

NUA parliamentarian Rizvy Sinnalebbe told The Sunday Times that at Tuesday's meeting with President the party would press for implementation of promises made before the October General Election, including the setting up of the Oluvil harbour, a new administrative district in Kalmunai and a role for the NUA in peace talks.

He said the President had reiterated the promise in her policy statement last year but the budget made no provision for it and there appeared to be some confusion or contradiction.

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