Sri Lanka marks breakthrough toward ending ethnic conflict

Friday, December 6, 2002

OSLO, Norway -- After a bitter 19-year war, Sri Lanka and Tamil Tiger rebels reached a breakthrough in their quest for peace Thursday, agreeing on a way to govern their ethnically divided island as one nation.

At the end of four days of peace talks in Oslo, Norway, both sides said they were leaving with a firm commitment to develop a lasting peace. They meet again in January in Thailand for more talks.

"What is irreversible is the commitment to peace," said chief government negotiator Gamini Peiris.

"There is not going to be a war, we are quite certain of that."

The sides agreed to pursue a federal model of sharing power once a final peace pact has been reached.

A final political solution would be "founded on internal self-determination based on a federal structure," a draft copy of a joint statement said.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam had long demanded a separate homeland for the island's 3.2 million Tamil minority. They claim the country's 14 million Sinhalese discriminate against them. The fighting has claimed nearly 65,000 lives and displaced another 1.6 million people.

Last week, however, they said they would accept being a part of Sri Lanka in exchange for significant autonomy.

According to the draft statement, the rebels also promised to allow competing political parties to stay in their regions as long as they are unarmed. The power of their courts and police would not extend into government-held areas.

The rebels, banned as terrorists in five countries including the United States, said they were committed to ending the conflict.

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