Guns fall silent in Sri Lanka
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Guns are falling silent across Sri Lanka in accordance with a cease-fire deal signed by the government and Tamil Tiger rebels following almost two decades of war.
The Tigers and government forces began observing the new ceasefire on Saturday, one day after signing a Norwegian-brokered pact that sparked hopes for lasting peace in this South Asian nation.
The pact moves Sri Lanka one step closer to peace talks, which would be the first in seven years to end the protracted ethnic war that has divided the island nation.
Sri Lanka's prime minister says talks will begin once it is confirmed the truce has taken hold.
The rebels have been fighting the government for nearly two decades. They are seeking a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils, who they say face state discrimination.
The Norwegian government has spent more than two years trying to get the two sides to talk about ending a war, which has taken the lives of nearly 64,000 people.
The deal, which calls for an open-ended cease-fire and international observers to monitor it, takes effect Saturday, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen told The Associated Press in Oslo.
The details of the agreement signed between rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and Prime Minster Ranil Wickremasinghe have not been made public yet.
Wickremasinghe handed the signed agreement to Norwegian Ambassador Jon Westborg after visiting a military checkpoint where rebels had planted white flags to mark the cease-fire.
Tamil residents presented the premier with gifts of a shawl and rice, a traditional sign of prosperity.
Wickremesinghe won parliamentary elections in December on a promise to seek peace and restore Sri Lanka's war-battered economy.
But news of the accord has sparked an angry retort from Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has said that the way the deal was reached ignored constitutional provisions that require presidential approval.
Kumaratunga, who retains the powerful presidency until 2005, said she only learned about the cease-fire agreement after the rebel leader had signed it.
After nearly seven weeks of a truce, the peace process was nearly destroyed on Thursday when the rebels and the Sri Lankan navy fought in the deep seas off the northeast of the country.
Two sailors were killed and three others wounded in the fighting, which broke out when naval patrols intercepted a rebel logistics convoy.
Sri Lankan government officials said they have obtained assurances from the rebels, through the Norwegian facilitators, that they would abide by provisions of the ceasefire.
No date has been given for peace talks, but there are hopes they will take place by spring.
Sri Lankan officials have told AP that Scandinavian monitors would begin arriving Monday to observe the cease-fire.
Journalist Iqbal Athas contributed to this report.
Sri Lankan navy clashes with Tiger rebels
Envoys begin work on Sri Lanka peace bid
February 7, 2002
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