Hopes rise for end to Sri Lanka civil war

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AN END to Sri Lanka's 11-year- long civil war, which has cost more than 30,000 lives, may be nearing. Tamil insurgent leaders have reacted positively to initial peace overtures made by the island's new Prime Minister, Chandrika Kumaratunga.

A spokesman from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which controls roughly a battle-pitted third of the island, said it was prepared to start peace talks with Colombo. But first, the Tamil Tigers called for 'deeds, not words'. They demanded that Ms Kumaratunga declare a cease- fire, open safe passage from the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna southwards, and lift the economic blockade that the army imposes on the LTTE-occupied region.

Ms Kumaratunga, sworn into office this month, indicated she was prepared to lift the embargo on many of the items banned from entering the Jaffna peninsula, where 600,000 Tamils live under LTTE control. The list is full of such bizarre choices as sweets and lavatory paper, which are unlikely to be turned into lethal weapons.

'We are ready for unconditional talks, but for there to be any peace moves, a suitable climate must be created,' said Anton Balasingham, the LTTE spokesman. Mr Balasingham described himself as the Tiger's 'ideologue' and 'theoretician', but it is doubtful that his statements were made without approval from the LTTE's Commander Prabhakaran.

Secretive and despotic, the LTTE chief is the key to any lasting peace. Some military experts in Colombo have spent the past decade trying to decipher Commander Prabhakaran's enigmatic strategies, often put into effect by suicide bombers, who have assassinated an Indian prime minister, a Sri Lankan president and a score of generals and top-ranking officials. These Colombo experts are wary of the LTTE's latest peace offer. They say Commander Prabhakaran has a siege mentality and will agree to the peace talks merely to stall for time while he builds up his insurgent force.

'We know Prabhakaran has gone on a huge recruitment drive. His Tiger force has doubled to around 14,000 men. It could be that he just wants to stop the clock for a while to strengthen his position,' said one Colombo analyst.

The new prime minister will tomorrow meet senior army commanders to seek advice on possible ways to end the civil war, which is costing Sri Lanka more than dollars 1m ( pounds 660,000) a day. Since Ms Kumaratunga's takeover, the army has stopped shelling Jaffna. The Tigers, too, have refrained from any major attacks or political killings since Ms Kumaratunga's victory.

Although Ms Kumaratunga's is a minority government, she has the main opposition party behind her in attempting to settle the Tamil revolt. How long their support lasts depends on how much autonomy she is willing to give the LTTE, which is pushing for a separate Tamil nation.