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Sri Lanka lifts Tamil Tiger ban

Sri Lanka troops
The conflict between government forces and Tamil rebels has resulted in the death of more then 64,000 people  

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka has lifted a ban on Tamil Tiger rebels, paving the way for crucial peace talks scheduled to begin September 16 in Thailand.

The lifting of the ban, first imposed in January 1998, has been a precondition of the Tigers for taking part in peace talks aimed at ending more than 20 years of civil war.

The decision was announced Wednesday by Defense Minister Tilak Marapone in a Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the absence of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Journalist Kasra Naji told CNN the decision was a controversial one because the president was opposed to it.

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But it was also an important one, he said, because the lifting of the ban had been demanded by the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), as a precondition of attending talks.

Sunday, Kumaratunga said the ban should be lifted only after the start of the peace talks. She has complained that there has been too many concessions to the Tiger rebels.

Relations have been strained between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe, who is determined to press on with the peace process being brokered by the government of Norway.

Earlier this week, there were demonstrations in Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, in which hard-liners in the majority ethnic group, the Singhalese, and fundamentalist Buddhists monks denounced government plans to lift the ban.

Naji told CNN there was optimism in the north of the country that a settlement could be reached with the rebels who have been fighting for a homeland for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.

Two weeks ago Richard Armitage, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, visited Sri Lanka to boost the fragile peace process between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

While in Jaffna, Armitage visited Sarasalai -- where there was heavy fighting in 2000 between government soldiers and Tamil Tiger rebels -- a place littered with mines and unexploded ordinances.

A U.S. mine clearing operation is under way in the region. An estimated one million mines are believed to be buried in heavily populated northern Sri Lanka, planted by both sides during the civil war.

In July, Wickremesinghe met with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington to seek support in bringing peace to his country.

Prior to the current eight-month cease-fire, the Sri Lankan government battled for nearly 20 years in a civil war with the rebels, who have been fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of the island nation.

While backing the peace process in Sri Lanka, U.S. policy does not support a Tamil homeland or associated terrorism to achieve that goal.

-- CNN Correspondent Kasra Naji contributed to this report




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