The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have agreed to begin face-to-face negotiations with the Sri Lankan government and the talks are expected to begin in May, a senior Cabinet minister said on Wednesday.
"My expectation is that talks will approximately begin within six weeks, probably the first week of May," Cabinet spokesman and Constitutional Affairs Minister G L Peiris told reporters in the capital.
LTTE leader V Prabhakaran and chief negotiator Anton Balasingham conveyed their willingness to begin talks to a Norwegian delegation that held discussions with them in the northern Vanni region on Tuesday.
The TamilNet Web site quoted Balasingham last night as saying that the LTTE wanted three prerequisites to be fulfilled for the talks to begin: full implementation of the present cease-fire agreement, lifting of the ban on the organisation, and return of normalcy in the north and east of the country.
Asked about these conditions, Peiris said: "If that is so, we will consider them. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has already said he will consider anything other than a demand for a separate state."
The minister said both sides believe the time is opportune for negotiations. "We should first arrive at an agreement on the agenda, what should be discussed and the sequence, these are issues on which there should be some measure of agreement," Peiris said.
Peiris said Balasingham's return to the island was meant to facilitate discussions within the LTTE and was entirely in accordance with the law. The LTTE negotiator landed two days ago directly in Vanni instead of passing through Colombo.
"We had to give an opportunity to LTTE to prepare for discussions. As Dr Balasingham is handling the peace efforts on behalf of LTTE, it was desirable that he should be allowed to meet Prabhakaran to decide their negotiating position at the talks," he said.
Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen is expected to visit Vanni next month to meet Prabhakaran. Further progress is expected after that, as by then the Jaffna-Kandy highway will be fully open to civilian traffic.
The progress in implementation of the February truce figured prominently in Tuesday's discussions between Prabhakaran and the Norwegian delegation, which included special envoy Erik Solheim and Oslo's Ambassador in Colombo Jon Westborg.
TamilNet said the LTTE leader expressed disappointment at the delay in implementing some of the terms and conditions -- an apparent reference to the continued closure of the highway between the forward defensive positions of the combatants between Muhamalai in the Jaffna peninsula and Kilinochchi in the Vanni area.
The LTTE says it is ready for reopening the stretch, but believes the government is delaying it. As per the agreement, modalities for the reopening should have been completed by March 24.
But the Norwegian facilitators said the government had agreed that the highway known as A9, the main land route linking the Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna town with the Vanni mainland, would be opened formally on April 8.
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