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POLITICS-SRI LANKA: Peace Hinges on Fate of Nordic Monitors

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Jul 27 2006 (IPS) - Peace in Sri Lanka now hinges on the success of a mission to the island by Norwegian special peace envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer, in the first week of August, to discuss with the government and Tamil rebel leaders the future of the all-Nordic ceasefire monitoring team.

Following a ban on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the European Union in May, the separatist militant group demanded the withdrawal of Sweden, Denmark and Finland, which are EU members, from the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) on grounds of doubtful neutrality. That leaves Norway and Iceland which are non-EU, Nordic countries.

&#39&#39Unbiased neutrality between the partners to the conflict was fundamental in choosing the Nordic countries for peace monitoring in the first place," LTTE spokesman S.P. Tamilselvan said.

If the Tigers&#39 demand is conceded, it would result in a reduction of the 57-member team to 20 and already Colombo has signalled opposition to any change in the composition of the SLMM.

Keheliya Rambukwella, policy implementation minister, announced earlier in the week that any changes made to the SLMM staff would result in the ‘&#39ceasefire becoming null and void as far as we (the government) are concerned.&#39&#39

However, Rambukwella indicated that the government would consider replacing the EU Nordics with monitors from other countries. ‘&#39 We are looking at countries like India and South Africa,&#39&#39 he said.

The ceasefire, mediated by Norway in 2002, is at the heart of current diplomatic efforts to get the Tamil Tigers (as the LTTE is known) and the government back to the negotiating table.

If Denmark, Finland and Sweden withdraw, it would affect 37 out of the 57 monitors and would lead to the collapse of the already sputtering February 2002 truce.

Hanssen-Bauer&#39s task would be to convince the Tigers of the continued neutrality of the EU members or at least persuade them to allow time for Norway to reconstitute the SLMM with non-EU but Nordic members.

The stakes are high because a failure would mean resumption of a war that has already claimed 65,000 lives as the Tigers strive to achieve their stated goal of carving out a separate homeland for the island&#39s Tamil minority in the north and east.

Parallel efforts are being mounted by Japan which plans to send its special envoy to Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi, to meet both government representatives as well as Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. &#39&#39He wants to talk direct with Prabhakaran because he (Prabhakaran) is the final decision-making authority," Japanese embassy officials in Colombo said.

Following the EU line, Japan has been considering banning the Tigers, if the group persists with its hard-line stance. &#39&#39Yes it (ban) is under consideration, but all will depend on Akashi&#39s visit,&#39&#39 embassy officials told IPS.

Attempts by Swedish officials to meet Prabhakaran and other top Tiger officials, last week, failed.

There are indications that Sweden, Denmark and Finland were planning to pull out, if current efforts fail, in the next five days because of safety issues. "If their (monitors) safety cannot be guaranteed, that would be a problem," SLMM spokesman Thoffinur Omrasson said. Sources in the north said that the Tigers had been informed that a pullout was possible.

In May, after three warnings to the SLMM not to board vessels of the Sri Lanka Navy, the Tigers attacked a flotilla of crafts off the northern waters that was travelling under the flag of the SLMM. No monitors were injured, but a patrol craft, with more than a dozen people on board, was lost and the monitors have since stopped boarding naval vessels.

Norway and Iceland have indicated unwillingness to continue on their own or to increase monitors to fill the vacuum. For their part, the Tigers have only stated that they want the EU nationals out and prefer that Norway, at least, stays on as main facilitator.

Norway has facilitated the last round of direct talks between the government and the LTTE in January.

There is now widespread fear that a pullout by the SLMM would provide the final push towards war in a situation which has seen 900 persons, 550 of them civilians, in violence since November when a new pro-Sinhalese government led by President Mahinda Rajapakse came to power.

&#39&#39They (SLMM) are doing its job to the maximum level they can. People accuse them saying that they have not done their job properly and that as a result the Tamils are still suffering. But the SLMM is only here to monitor and it is up to the two parties to bring peace," observed V. Muruhan, a resident of Tiger-held Kilinochchi.

&#39&#39Civilians in Jaffna have been facing problems ever since the Presidential elections last year. Civilians are killed everyday. We need protection and the SLMM should ensure that the Tamils get protection from whoever is attacking us. The SLMM is doing its job. We need them because we are afraid that the situation might get worse if they are not here," said P. Kumar from northern Jaffna, the cultural centre of the Tamils.

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