BBC News

Tamil Tigers 'serious about peace'

The talks took place in Tamil-held areas
A Norwegian peace envoy who has held a surprise meeting in Sri Lanka with the head of the Tamil Tigers has said he believes the group is serious about making peace.

These talks are one step in a positive direction, but everyone understands there is still a long, long way to go to solve the conflict

Peace envoy Erik Solheim Erik Solheim held two hours of talks with Tamil Tiger chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in what is being seen as a highly-significant development.

Mr Prabhakaran has rarely if ever met outside intermediaries, and the meeting has raised hopes that efforts to try to end the long-running conflict are back on track.

"These talks are one step in a positive direction, but everyone understands there is still a long, long way to go to solve the conflict," Mr Solheim told the BBC after the talks.

President Kumaratunga: Appeared to have dropped peace
initiative He said all major topics related to the war had been discussed, and he said the Tigers appeared serious.

"We were exploring the possibilities of creating an atmosphere which could make peace talks possible," he said.

Mr Solheim, who is expected to meet Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga on Friday, said these were the first talks of their kind for at least five years.

Trusted envoy
Mr Solheim was accompanied by the Norwegian ambassador, John Westborg, and another Norwegian official as part of a three-day visit to Tamil Tiger areas.

They met Mr Prabhakaran and the leader of the rebels' political wing, Tamilselvan.

In a press statement released in London after the meeting, the Tamil Tigers said that Mr Prabhakaran had called for a de-escalation of the Sri Lankan conflict before negotiations with the government could begin.

The BBC's Alastair Lawson in Colombo says the meeting means that Norwegian efforts to mediate between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers are now back on the cards, and that the Norwegians appear to have the confidence of both sides.

No holds barred
The development is in contrast to statements made by the government during the recent election campaign, when it appeared to abandon the possibility of negotiating with the rebels.

The government's official line is that it does not welcome foreign mediation in the war.

It says it would prefer outside countries to provide the facilities to enable the two sides to reconcile their differences.

During the election campaign, President Kumaratunga had said there would be no holds barred in the war against the rebels.

She said the best hope for peace was either in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, or in her plans to alter the constitution so that Tamil majority areas of the country could have more autonomy.