Norwegians to coordinate relief efforts in Lanka

Associated Press

Vavuniya, January 21:

Norwegian peacemakers who have been trying to revive peace talks between Tamil Tigers and the government are back in Sri Lanka on a less ambitious mission: to end clashes over the distribution of aid to tsunami victims. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen met President Chandrika Kumaratunga today in the capital, Colombo. He and his team are to fly to the rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi to meet the reclusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran tomorrow.

While all sides say the focus of the talks is to coordinate relief efforts, there are indications the intention is broader. The rebels are summoning their chief peace negotiator from London, Anton Balasingham. The Norwegian delegation includes special peace negotiator Eric Solheim, who already has met Jayantha Dhanapala, head of the government body handling the peace process. “The way the parties work together on the disaster will have long-term implications,” Solheim said yesterday as the Norwegians began their round of talks.

The tsunami lashed Tamil and Sinhalese communities equally, with entire towns on both sides obliterated. At least 31,000 Sri Lankans were killed, and nearly 1 million displaced.

The rebels complained that government aid failed to reach rebel-held areas in the north and east for the first three days. Aid has flowed smoothly since then, mostly delivered by the UN World Food Program and other international agencies.

But the rebels seek direct international aid through their humanitarian arm, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation, while the government insists it is responsible for disbursing foreign donations throughout the country. In addition, civilian-clad rebels and uniformed army soldiers have clashed since the tsunami over influence in the tsunami refugee centres, especially in the east where the lines of control are less clear than in the Tiger-controlled areas in the north. Each side accuses the other of obstructing deliveries in the conflict zone.

“From time to time it happens,” said rebel spokesman Daya Master, adding that the rebels would bring it up in talks with the Norwegians.