President complains of Norway’s pressure
By Our Diplomatic Correspondent
President Chandrika Kumaratunga on Friday blamed the Norwegian facilitators in Sri Lanka's stalled peace process for unduly pressuring her and not doing the same to the LTTE for being "inflexible". She also declared her "willingness to go forward" to break the stalemate to put an end to the 20-year northern insurgency.

In a telephone conversation with outgoing US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on Friday afternoon, President Kumaratunga complained that the recent Norwegian peace delegation to Colombo had applied pressure on her, while not doing the same to the rebels.

She also said that she was prepared to discuss the LTTE's ISGA (self-rule) proposal which the rebels demand as the "basis for resuming peace talks".

She told Mr. Armitage that she would discuss ISGA as a proposal of the LTTE, but the LTTE needed to also discuss her government's proposals. She avoided using the word 'counter-proposals' - a reference cabinet spokesman Mangala Samaraweera used at a media briefing which was soon pointed out to be procedurally wrong. While President Kumaratunga was complaining about the Norwegian facilitators, her Information Minister Samaraweera made a special statement in Parliament re-emphasising the role of the Norwegians as facilitators and not as mediators or arbitrators.

"It was made clear to the Norwegian Government, and accepted by that Government, that its role was to be that of a facilitator and not a mediator or arbitrator," the statement said explaining the differences of each status.

"The facilitator has no judgmental role to play in the process of negotiations," the statement added raising curiosity in political circles to the timing of the comments, and only a week after a high-powered Norwegian delegation comprising Foreign Minister Jan Petersen and Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgessen visited the country to try and get the stalled peace process between Colombo and the Wanni jump-started.

The meeting between President Kumaratunga and the Norwegian delegation on the night of Wednesday Nov. 10 had been "quite heated" as one diplomat said, with the Sri Lankan side made to feel, at times, that the Norwegians were pushing for the government to accept the LTTE's won't-budge position of making ISGA the basis for resuming peace talks.

The Samaraweera statement was, however, pinned on the fact that the government was merely responding to an adjournment time question from JHU monks who called for the 'immediate withdrawal' of the Norwegians as brokers in the peace process.

The statement, while thanking the Norwegians for the role they had played "overall" said that President Kumaratunga had also pulled them up for the way they had handled some of the issues, and also blamed the Norwegian-led Monitoring Mission (SLMM) for its handling of some (security-related) issues.

Mr. Armitage, meanwhile, had told President Kumaratunga that the US stood firm with the government and agreed with her that the LTTE was being inflexible. Apologising for having to miss his recent scheduled visit to Colombo owing to having to attend the funeral of the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al- Nahyan, Mr. Armitage pledged continuity in US foreign policy on the peace process in Sri Lanka with a new team at the State Department in Washington.

He said that the new team would need to "re-think options" to motivate the LTTE back into the negotiating table, and said that US patience with the rebels was also "running out". Mr. Armitage also welcomed the comments made by the President in her recent television interview where she declared her willingnessto break the deadlock in process.

Soon after his call to President Kumaratunga, Mr. Armitage telephoned Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He urged that the UNP re-consider its boycott of the Peace and Reconciliation Advisory Council and engage itself fully in the peace process.

Mr. Wickremesinghe had told the US Deputy Secretary of State that his party fully supported President Kumaratunga's endeavours to find a political solution with the LTTE, but urged in return that the President obtain the support of her own coalition partners (especially the JVP) to support her peace moves.

Mr. Armitage had not specifically referred to the JVP's position on the peace process or whether she spoke for them when she said she was willing to discuss ISGA.

One of the JVP's key player's, Propaganda Chief Wimal Weerawansa, MP was recently on a tour of Western countries drumming up support, and funds, from expatriate Sri Lankans to oppose the ISGA proposal of the LTTE.

Meanwhile, the US State Department issued a statement from Washington soon after Mr. Armitage's telephone call to Sri Lanka's President and Opposition Leader urging the LTTE to "abandon terrorism in word and deed and return to the peace table".

"President Kumaratunga has been consistent and forthright in her commitment to settling outstanding issues in the peace process in the framework of a united Sri Lanka," the statement said, adding that Mr. Armitage praised the work of Norway to facilitate these talks.

The statement made no reference to the contents of his discussion with the UNP Leader. It, however, blamed the LTTE for the recent "terrorist actions" that "fly in the face of efforts of all other Sri Lankans and the international community to bring peace to this war-torn country - the murder yesterday (Thursday) of an army officer, clearly carried out by the LTTE is only the most recent assault on the peace process".

Mr. Armitage had, in the meantime, received information of the assassination of High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya in Colombo, the judge who had sentenced LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to 200 years imprisonment for complicity in the Central Bank bombing in January 1996, and checked the facts with US Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead, who had briefed him that the murder may have been the work of the drug mafia and not the LTTE.

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