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A Buddhist monk invoking blessings on a woman police constable who was on duty while the country celebrated the National New Year. This programme to invoke blessings and give gifts to security forces personnel on duty at check points during the New Year was organised by the Sihala Urimaya.
- pic by Gemunu Wellage
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Government awaits Oslo move 

Reports of Tamil Tiger (LTTE) demands made over last weekend for the continuation of peace talks did not happen the way the guerrillas are claiming, according to government officials.

These officials associated with peace process say that Norwegian ambassador Jon Westborg had given a different version of events that took place last Friday and Saturday during talks with the head of the LTTE's political division, Thamil Chelvam in the Wanni jungles aimed at fixing a date for peace talks.

Even before Mr. Westborg could return to Colombo, the pro-LTTE website Tamilnet announced what it said was an LTTE statement which in turn claimed that its political head S.P.Thamil Chelvam had told the Norwegian envoy that the guerrillas would not come for talks unless Colombo lifted a ban they had imposed on them as well as agreed to a ceasefire. The website said that Mr.Thamil Chelvam had made it very plain to Mr. Westborg that these were conditions for talks.

The website report was followed a day later by a broadcast by LTTE's very own clandestine radio station Voice of Tigers (VoT) which gave the same message saying that these twin demands were "absolutely essential" for talks to begin in an atmosphere of mutual respect and peace.

Government officials say ambassador Westborg had been baffled by what are purpoted to be LTTE statements. He has told both President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar that these two issues were indeed raised during their ten hours of talks in the jungles of the country's north central district, but that they were not placed as demands or pre-requisites for talks.

Mr.Westborg's mission had been to iron out an agreement between the two warring parties that would ensure the government eased an economic embargo on LTTE controlled areas in return for a promise by the guerrillas not to carry out terrorist actions outside the north and east and thereby pave the way for a date to begin peace talks.

Foreign Minister Kadirgamar had already announced in Parliament that he would be able to give a date for talks within a month because he had been brimming with confidence that Mr. Westborg would come back with a date.

Ambassador Westborg has confirmed that the guerrilla leaders had said 'how can we talk while being an outlawed outfit and how can we talk while bombs are falling on our heads', but that these were said in passing after painstaking discussions on the agreement, especially on issues involving the volume of 'restricted items' that would be permitted entry into LTTE controlled areas as well as on the role of the Norwegians and other international monitors who would come into the picture once peace talks began.

These two issues were never placed as demands by the LTTE prior to last weekend,the only demand being to relax the economic embargo.

Government officials say that it will be Norway's duty now to get back to the LTTE and clarify their new demands,or what are purported to be their two new demands. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had deputised official spokesman Anton Balasingham to conduct negotiations with Norway's special envoy Erik Solheim, but Mr. Balasingham is reported to be away in Europe for the next three days, a move viewed with suspicion by Colombo's military establishment.

The National Security Council,the apex body mapping out the war with the rebels met after a considerable period of time last Monday with all service chiefs in attendance and President Kumaratunga presiding.

Mr.Westborg himself went on a private visit to Sigiriya, and was not available for further discussions with Sri Lankan leaders who have been somewhat shaken by the turn of events which are a clear set back to anticipated peace talks with the guerrillas.

Sri Lankan leaders were still waiting, nearly four days after Mr.Westborg's return from the jungles to find out what objections the LTTE had to the agreement on humanitarian assistance for which ostensibly, the LTTE had not given a firm date for peace talks to begin.

The LTTE's deft new move has not only left the Norwegian envoy perplexed, but his country's initiative in total embarassment. "But the Norwegians are patient people" said one Sri Lankan government official, and added that they would "roll with the punch" seeing in what way they could reach the LTTE leadership and wean them around.

As far as the Sri Lankan government is concerned, officials said, they would have to rely on Mr.Westborg's reporting of events and cannot take cognisance of the LTTE statement given publicity by both Tamilnet and VOT.

"We will go on the basis that the LTTE is still willing to hold peace talks, that there are no new demands,and that the agreement will be finalised as soon as possible so that a date could be fixed for talks to start" a Foreign Office official said.

"The ball is very much now with the Norwegians, " he added saying that they would not be surprised if the LTTE leadership were to tell the Norwegians that these two new demands are infact their position now, and irrespective of the agreement, the two new issues are pre-condtions for talks.

The LTTE has thrice before - in 1986, 1991 and 1995 started the process of peace talks only to walk away in mid-stream.

See also Situation Report by Iqbal Athas

It's flying time for VIPs

By Tania Fernando
Both, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe along with host of other government and opposition politicians left the country on Thursday, for official or private visits.

They were due to spend the national New Year holidays away.

While President Kumaratunga left for London on a private visit Mr Wickremesinghe accompanied by his wife Maithri has left for Oslo for about one week, at the invitation of the Norwegian Government.

In November last year the President was on a visit to Europe while at the same time the Leader of the Opposition was in India.

UNP media spokesman Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku said that Mr. Wickremasinghe's visit to Oslo had nothing to do with the peace talks.

He said the invitation was extended to Mr. Wickremasinghe to visit Oslo sometime back, however he had decided to accept it for it to co-incide with the New Year holidays.

Minister and CWC leader Mr. Arumugam Thondaman on Thursday flew to Bangladesh and India for a SAARC trade conference and Education Minister Susil Premajayanth has left for the United States on an official visit. 

Ministers A. H. M. Fowzie, Jeyraj Fernandopulle and UNP MP John Amaratunga too have left the island on private visits.

Diesel hike on the cards?

A diesel price hike that could trigger off commodity price increases is likely soon.

According to official sources, the increase has already been discussed and would be announced once final approval is granted.

The Government is also expected to introduce a series of employer-friendly labour laws which will curtail trade union rights.

This follows a series of complaints made by private sector that trade unions, including those backed by the JVP are posing a threat to the operations of several industries.

Dissolution threat in budget drama

By Our Political Editor
A possible dissolution of Parliament and a General Election were averted after the Government successfully saw through the voting in the budget debate. It was passed with 116 voting in favour and 107 against. 

An immediate dissolution, The Sunday Times learns, was the Government's retaliatory option if Opposition parties succeeded in defeating the vote on the budget. 

Although Constitutional provisions prevented the Government from dissolving Parliament before it had functioned for one year, such a move was possible if the Government is defeated on a vote involving fiscal measures. 

Moves by the United National Party, reportedly with the backing of some leading private sector companies, caused serious concerns for the PA leadership in the past weeks. 

So much so, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who was tipped off about the move, not only had separate talks with two constituent partners of the PA - the Ceylon Workers Congress and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress but also addressed the Government Parliamentary Group at a special meeting.

The Sunday Times has learnt that the UNP leadership was informed of the retaliatory response they would receive if the Government was defeated. This is said to have prompted the leadership to put off their plan of action thus avoiding another general election.

But highly placed PA sources denied reports they were on the verge of a defeat. 

"We were very confident that the Opposition will not succeed in defeating us. There was no worry for us on that count," the source said.

More days for Chief of Staff Neil Dias

In an unprecedented move, the Ministry of Defence has extended the term of office of Sri Lanka Army's Chief of Staff, Major General Neil Dias, just a day before his turn of duty had ended. He was informed of the move through a phone call to his residence.

Maj. Gen. Dias was due at a farewell parade in his honour from his unit, the Armoured Corps at Panagoda, on Friday morning but did not turn up. Barely an hour later, news spread that President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, on the eve of her departure to London on a private visit, had extended his term. 

On Thursday evening, personnel at Volunteer Force Headquarters were also to accord him a farewell honour guard.

Veteran soldier and highly regarded by officers and men, Maj. Gen. Dias was the Army's Chief of Staff and Commandant of the Volunteer Corps. He was scheduled to go on retirement on April 12, upon reaching the retirement age of 55 years. 

Following a Defence Ministry intimation that Maj. Gen. Dias would retire, Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, had sent out new posting orders. In terms of these orders, copied to Army establishments countrywide, Maj. Gen.Lohan Gunawardena, was named as the new Chief of Staff. He would now revert to his substantive post as the Deputy Chief of Staff. 

The news of an year's extension of Maj. Gen. Dias' service in the Army, soon after his retirement, came as a surprise to the security establishment. 

It was only in January, this year, the Ministry of Defence turned down a request for extension of service by then Chief of Staff, Major General Janaka Perera. He retired from service on January 31.

The refusal to extend his term of office beyond 55 years, the age of retirement, it was then pointed out, was in accordance with a new policy of not granting extensions to officers who had reached their age of retirement. 

The extension of Maj. Gen. Dias' term of office will mean he will remain in office until April, next year. Maj. Gen. Lohan Gunawardena, Deputy Chief of Staff, is scheduled to complete his extended term of office in December, this year. 

On the eve of his reported retirement, Maj. Gen. Dias had politely refused farewell dinners and a ceremonial send off. 

On Thursday, the last day of his tenure in office prior to reaching the retirement age, he was presiding at a conference at the Army's Volunteer Force Headquarters in Pelawatte.


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