Norway envoys strive for Sri Lanka peace talks

The army killed two suspected Tamil rebels Friday as Norwegian envoys met with Sri Lanka's president in a bid to prevent the island nation from sliding back into full-scale civil war. The two-hour talks between President Mahinda Rajapakse and envoys Jon Hannsen-Bauer and Erik Solheim took place in the president's office amid tight security. The meeting was closed to reporters and photographers.

The government urged the Norwegians to continue efforts to get the Tamil Tigers back to the negotiating table quickly, said Palitha Kohona, chief of the government's Peace Secretariat. "The government expressed its readiness to attend the negotiations as soon as it was feasible," said Kohona who attended Friday's meeting. "Both sides left with a degree of optimism." A 2002 cease-fire agreement between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels has been disintegrating amid an upsurge in violence and clashes between the two sides, including last month's assassination attempt on Sri Lanka's army chief.

Friday's shootout occurred in Kopay, a small town in the northern Jaffna peninsula, when the army stopped two suspected guerrillas riding a motorbike, said Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe, an army spokesman. The suspected Tamil insurgents were killed and one soldier was wounded, the spokesman said. Jaffna is 300 kilometers (250 miles) north of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.

In the eastern town of Batticaloa, rebels tried to blow up an army truck, causing minor damage but no casualties, Samarasinghe said. Batticaloa is 225 kilometers (140 miles) east of Colombo. Attempts by Norway, which brokered the truce, to revive a peace process that stalled in 2003, have so far fallen flat. The government and rebels held peace talks in Geneva in February, but a second round slated for April was canceled after they blamed each other for rising violence. Nearly 300 people have been killed since April, raising fears that Sri Lanka is heading back to all-out war.

The Norwegian envoys' efforts at restarting talks to permanently end the conflict come before a May 30 meeting in Tokyo of sponsors of the peace process: the European Union, Japan, the U.S. and Norway. Solheim was scheduled to fly to neighboring India later Friday to brief officials in New Delhi, a Norwegian Foreign Ministry statement said.

India sent peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka in 1987, but withdrew them three years later after more than 1,100 Indian soldiers died in clashes with the Tigers. Hannsen-Bauer, meanwhile, planned to meet Tamil Tiger leaders Saturday in hopes of persuading the guerrillas to return to the peace table. He has called for an early resumption of peace talks in meetings this week with government officials and political leaders, but Solheim has sought to play down expectations, saying the situation in the country was difficult.

The killing last week of Col. Ramanan, the Tamil Tigers' No. 2 leader and intelligence chief for eastern Sri Lanka, has made matters worse. The rebels blamed the army for Ramanan's killing, a charge the government denies. S. Puleedevan, chief of the Tamil Tigers' peace secretariat, has said the outcome of Saturday's talks would depend on the government's response to the mounting killings in the north and east.

"Violence should be stopped," Puleedevan said by satellite phone Thursday from the rebel stronghold in the northern town of Kilinochchi. "From our side, we are committed to the peace process." The Tamil Tigers began fighting the government in 1983 for a separate homeland for minority Tamils, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. More than 65,000 people were killed before the 2002 cease-fire, reports the AP.