NATIONAL

Sri Lankan Defence officials meet LTTE commanders

COLOMBO NOV. 10. Top Sri Lankan Defence officials today met senior regional commanders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to kick start a de-escalation process as agreed upon at the recently-concluded second round of talks between Colombo and the rebels in Thailand.

According to Norwegian facilitators, the first meeting of the Sub-committee on De-Escalation and Normalisation (SDN) was held in a "cordial and constructive'' manner today in the no-man's land, Omanthai, 265 km north of Colombo.

Today's meeting decided to open up eight entry points enabling fishermen in the northern Jaffna Peninsula to engage in round-the-clock fishing. Restoration of normality has been a key demand forwarded by the LTTE.

The mandate of the SDN, agreed during the second round of talks, is to examine ways and means to ensure resettlement, the return of private property and the resumption of economic activities in these areas, while accommodating the security concerns of each party.

According to the Norwegian Embassy, "the parties discussed and agreed upon procedural matters and identified issues'' that would be resolved by the sub-committee.

The Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando, and the LTTE's military commander for the eastern Batticaloa and Amparai districts, Karuna, led the two delegations. Mr. Fernando was accompanied by Maj. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda, who was an adviser to Colombo's team in the second round of talks, and other senior officers from the Army, Navy and the Special Task Force.

In addition to `Col.' Karuna (a.k.a V. Muralitharan), the LTTE team included the other regional military commanders, Pathuman, the military leader for Trincomalee, Theepan (Jaffna) and Jeyam (Vavuniya). The Tigers' regional political leaders, Kousalyan (Batticaloa-Amparai), Ezhilan

(Vavuniya), Tilak (Trincomalee) and Elamparithi (Jaffna) were also present at today's meeting.

The next meeting of the SDN will be held on November 14, followed by three more meetings, which is expected to address specific regional matters and will be held in the respective areas. Issues such as resettlement of the internally displaced and those relating to the relocation of high-security zones are to be sorted out during these talks.

As these meetings will take on thorny issues, the manner in which they progress will be an important pointer to how the two sides are able to take the de-escalation efforts forward.

While the Tigers would ideally prefer a complete pullout of Government troops from the northeast, clearly that will be an unacceptable position for Colombo. Moreover, the steps to de-escalation are bound to meet political resistance in the south. The sensitive issue of security for the eastern

Muslims would also have to be addressed. For this, the second round of talks agreed upon a seven-step confidence-building measure as well as meetings between the Muslim political leadership and the rebels.

De-mining is also another issue that will have to be addressed in this sub-committee. Both the Sri Lanka Army and the LTTE have been engaged in de-mining operations in the northeast.

Today's meeting, according to sources, did not address issues relating to the high security zones, which is expected to be taken up later.

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