Nimal Sripala de Silva, the health minister, said on Thursday that he expected Erik Solheim, Norway's international development minister who is due to visit on 23 January, to put pressure on the Tamil Tiger rebels to compromise on a venue for face-to-face talks.

  

"We will tell him to pressure the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] to come to a reasonable solution," said de Silva, who is also a government spokesman on the peace process.

 

Norway's attempts to bring the two parties to the table remain deadlocked over a dispute on the venue.

 

The Sri Lankan government initially insisted that the meeting must be in an area under its control within Sri Lanka, but later agreed to move to an Asian venue. The Tigers insisted that talks must be in territory under their control or in Oslo, the capital of Norway.

  

De Silva said there was no change in Colombo's position and it was hopeful of talks at an Asian venue. Japan, Sri Lanka's main financial backer, has offered to host talks.

 

Spiral of violence

  

The secessionist conflict has left
more than 60,000 dead since 1972

Meanwhile, Nordic truce monitors had said last week that the country was not too far from returning to war given the escalation of violence in the northeast, where nearly 100 people have been killed in the past month.

  

Solheim issued a similar warning and urged the parties to return to negotiations.

  

Official sources said a team of officials was due to travel to the troubled northern peninsula of Jaffna for talks with civil organisations in the area on Thursday as a confidence-building measure, but the visit had been put off.

  

Solheim in a statement issued in Oslo last week said he was concerned about an upsurge in shootings and explosions.

  

"I am deeply worried by the recent outbreak of violence in Sri Lanka," he said. "To check the spiral of violence, it is urgent that the two parties sit down together to examine ways of maintaining the ceasefire and moving the peace process forward."

  

The conflict has left more than 60,000 people dead since 1972. A shaky ceasefire has been in place since Feburary 2002.