Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels ruled out entering Norwegian-backed peace talks until the government declares a cease-fire as officials Sunday reported another bloody day of clashes.
In a statement sent from their London office, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insisted on a process of "de-escalation" or effective cease-fire, and said genuine peace talks could not be held "under conditions of war, violence and hostility."
But the LTTE did not refer to fresh fighting in the northern Jaffna peninsula or the spate of attacks in the island's north-east over the past few weeks, which, according to the government, killed 38 on both sides on Saturday alone.
The defense ministry said government forces were Sunday consolidating areas wrestled from rebel control after they launched a fresh offensive against the LTTE in Jaffna.
The ministry said 12 government troopers and 26 rebels were killed were killed in Saturday's clashes.
In their statement, the Tigers said talks could not take place while fighting continued, but at the same time stressed they were not demanding the withdrawal of security forces from the Jaffna peninsula, which the rebels held for nearly five years until December 1995.
"The Sri Lanka government has deliberately distorted our genuine plea for a peaceful environment for peace talks as a condition," the LTTE said in the statement.
"Sri Lanka has misinterpreted our call for the creation of conditions of normalcy as a situation that includes the withdrawal of armed forces from Jaffna. We did not demand the withdrawal of the armed forces."
The LTTE insisted peace talks have no chance of succeeding unless a ceasefire is agreed between the government and the rebels.
The rebels are waging a drawn-out campaign for an independent homeland in the island's north-east. The conflict has claimed over 60,000 lives since 1972.
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said in New Delhi Saturday that Colombo was ready for immediate peace talks with Tamil Tiger guerrillas, but added these could not start before next year.
The minister said President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is in Paris for a meeting Monday with the island's international donor community, was expected to return home only at the end of the month.
Kadirgamar also flatly ruled out a reduction in the scale of government offensives as a condition for peace talks.
"Enough time has been wasted, let us start talks now," he said. "Reciprocal gestures (from Colombo to anything the Tigers might offer) are not necessary at this time. They have been fighting us for 20 years.
"They don't need to be pampered in any way."
The LTTE said they welcomed any proposals suggested by the Norwegian government as confidence building measures "to be mutually reciprocated by the parties in the conflict."
The Tigers called for the lifting of an economic embargo on areas held by them as a "humanitarian gesture" which they said should not be confused as a precondition for talks.
Late last month, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran announced his willingness to open unconditional talks but insisted on conditions of normalcy.
In explaining their leader's call, the LTTE said in the statement that "by normalcy he meant the restoration of normal civilian life in Tamil areas by removing the stringent economic blockade imposed on the Tamil people."
"We want the government to take this step as a humanitarian gesture, as a measure of goodwill. This should not be viewed as a precondition for talks."
But Sri Lanka's foreign minister said the Tigers were not to be trusted as they regrouped and rearmed during truces and then launched surprise offensives against Sri Lankan forces.
Norway has been trying since last year to bring the Sri Lankan government and the Tiger rebels to the negotiating table. So far there has been no face-to-face meeting between the two sides -- COLOMBO (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)