Unidentified sources at the Norwegian Embassy in the capital Colombo said Norway's Prime Minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, accepted President Chandrika Kumaratunga's invitation to mediate between the two sides, according to the pro-rebel TamilNet website on Sunday.

  

Norway helped broker a February 2002 ceasefire between the Tamil Tigers and the government. The ceasefire continues to hold despite the rebels' withdrawal last year from peace negotiations.

  

Norwegian Embassy sources said a delegation including Foreign Minister, Jan Petersen, will visit Colombo in the first week of May for talks on resuming the peace process, the report said.

 

The Wickremesinghe-led United National Front party applauded the move to bring Norway back into the peace effort.

 

However, the party criticised Kumaratunga of having "stridently impugned the impartiality of Norway, in its role as facilitator."

 

Facilitator

  

Kumaratunga's Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, said earlier Norway will get involved in the peace process strictly as a facilitator - "not mediator, arbitrator or anything else."

  

Tamil Tiger spokesman Daya Master was quoted as saying on Sunday any future peace talks had to be be based on recognition of Tamil self-determination.

 

"If this is accepted as a basis for talks, then the chances of (the Tamil Tigers) participating in the talks and the peace process being taken forward without disruptions are good"

Daya Master,
spokesman, Tamil Tigers

The Tigers launched their fight in 1983 for a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's minority Hindu Tamils, claiming discrimination at the hands of the majority Buddhist Sinhalese. The civil war killed about 65,000 people. 

  

However, during the most recent round of talks, the rebels relinquished their demand for full independence and now seek increased autonomy.

  

"If this is accepted as a basis for talks, then the chances of (the Tamil Tigers) participating in the talks and the peace process being taken forward without disruptions are good," Master said.

 

Rebels waiting

  

The rebels are awaiting official word from Norway on the Sri Lankan government's intentions to resume peace talks, Master said.

  

Norway withdrew as a mediator last November amid a political tussle between Kumaratunga and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had signed the ceasefire with the rebels.

  

Kumaratunga had also accused Norway of overstepping its role and being biased towards the rebels.

  

She later dissolved Parliament and ordered elections three years before schedule, in which her party defeated Wickremesinghe.

 

Kumaratunga - who survived a 1999 rebel assassination attempt - takes a tougher stance towards the guerrillas.