Norwegian envoy holding crucial talks with reclusive leader in Sri Lanka

Norwegian envoy Eric Solheim arrived in northern Sri Lanka for crucial talks with the reclusive leader of the Tamil Tiger rebels Wednesday, amid fears the island could return to civil war after four years of relative calm. Solheim was meeting Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in the rebel-held city of Kilinochchi and was expected to deliver a message from President Mahinda Rajapakse. The meeting could help decide whether Sri Lanka can hold onto the 2002 cease-fire despite increasing violence.

In the latest of a series of attacks blamed on the rebels, a police officer was wounded when a grenade was thrown at a security bunker in the northern town of Vavuniya early Wednesday, the Media Unit of the Defense Ministry said. Police on Wednesday were also searching for those responsible for a series of explosions in the Sri Lankan capital that caused widespread panic but no known casualties, Deputy Inspector General of Police P. Jayasundara said.

Separately, unidentified gunmen shot and killed two people, believed to be rebel supporters, in the Tamil city of Jaffna, about 40 kilometers (25 mile) south of Kilinochchi on Wednesday, a police officer said.

About 81 government security personnel have been killed in attacks by suspected Tamil Tigers since Dec. 4. The rebels deny involvement. Another 40 civilians have been killed by unidentified assailants, with the government and the rebels blaming each other for the killings.

Solheim played a key role in arranging the cease-fire, halting nearly two decades of civil war that killed 65,000 people from both sides. Subsequent peace talks broke down in April 2003 when the Tigers withdrew demanding more autonomy for the Tamil-majority north and east.

Both the government and the Tigers have said that they are willing to resume talks aimed at proper implementation of the cease-fire to end the violence. However, disagreement over the venue and the agenda have delayed the resumption of talks. The Tigers want the talks to be in Oslo, Norway, but the allies in Rajapakse's government are against it. But Rajapakse told Solheim that he would not be rigid on the venue.

The rebels want the government to disarm armed groups opposed to the rebels first and then meet. The government, in turn, says the Tigers should stop attacking government forces first. The rebels have fought the government since 1983 to create a separate state for ethnic minority Tamils accusing majority Sinhalese of discrimination, reports the AP. N.U.

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