The government and Tamil Tigers have to start rebuilding confidence in each other, Erik Solheim , the Norwegian mediator, told the two sides at the start of their two-day meeting on Wednesday.

 

"Strengthening of the implementation of the ceasefire itself is an extremely important agenda," said Solheim, adding he hoped that more meetings would be set at the end of the talks to resume discussions on a peace settlement.

 

The talks were convened on the fourth anniversary of the signing of the ceasefire that began to unravel in December after the election of a hardline Sri Lankan administration and an escalation of violence by the rebels in the north.

 

"Strengthening of the implementation of the ceasefire itself is an extremely important agenda"

Erik Solheim , the Norwegian mediator

The peace talks broke down in 2003 after six rounds of negotiations when the rebels were excluded from a conference in Washington because the United States had branded them a terrorist organization.

 

On the eve of the talks, a Sri Lankan spokesman indicated the government delegation would seek to fix what he called "flaws" in the ceasefire agreement, and move the talks beyond the truce to issues of "lasting peace."

 

"We are seeking a formula for peace in Sri Lanka," said Rohitha Bogollagama, a senior minister speaking to reporters at Nyon, outside Geneva.

 

The Norwegian government persuaded the government and rebels of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam to meet after an upsurge in violence in December and January killed about 150 people, including more than 80 Sri Lankan military personnel.

 

In a lead up to the resumption of the negotiations, the sides lunched together Tuesday at the Chateau de Bossey, the talks' venue under snow-dusted mountains outside the village of Celigny.

 

Attack on Tamils

 

If the latest talks fail, it will mean
a return to the civil war 

A few hours before the talks began, on Wednesday, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels said six men in army uniform attacked one of their posts - an act they said questioned the government's sincerity at the peace talks.

 

The island's Tamil-dominated north and east has been calm since the two sides agreed to meet, but if the Geneva talks collapse, many fear the end of a fragile 2002 truce and a return to a civil war which has killed over 64,000 people.

   

"This attack has taken place just three and a half hours before the long awaited direct talks... in Geneva," the Tigers said on their official Web site. "The attack has raised serious doubts in the minds of Tamil people about the sincerity of (the government) in taking part in direct talks."

 

They said the attackers had moved out from a Sri Lankan army camp in the eastern district of Batticaloa and attacked a rebel post 500metres (yards) away, killing a 28-year-old member of the LTTE auxiliary forces.

   

The army denied any involvement, and a spokesman said the military had not crossed into the de facto state the Tigers control.

The Norwegian government persuaded the government and rebels of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam to meet after an upsurge in violence in December and January that killed about 150 people, including more than 80 Sri Lankan military personnel.

Prelude

Government troops have been
battling the rebels in the north

In the first move towards amending the truce, the Norwegian head of the 60-member truce monitoring team will step aside in favour of a Swede, the Norwegian government announced.

The Sri Lankan government had objected to the Norwegians acting as both peace mediators and commander of the truce observers, who are drawn from the Nordic countries.

Ulf Henricsson, 64, a retired Swedish general, who served in UN missions in the Balkans, will succeed Norwegian Brigadier General Hagrup Haukland on 1 April.

"This will definitely be a difficult task," Henricsson said. "All these conflicts are associated with trying and long-term work.There are no quick fixes," he said.

In Sri Lanka, religious leaders in Jaffna in the troubled north of the Indian Ocean island, prayed for success at Geneva in patching up the tattered cease-fire.

Prayers

"We pray that the negotiators participate in talks with honesty to alleviate the hardships faced by the people"

Thomas Saundaranayagam, the Catholic bishop for Jaffna

In a rare show of ecumenism, Hindu, Christian and Muslim clergy led the prayers in a public hall, which were to continue until the talks conclude.

"We pray that the negotiators participate in talks with honesty to alleviate the hardships faced by the people," said Reverend Thomas Saundaranayagam, the Catholic bishop for Jaffna, the historic capital of the Tamil people.

"The people are fearful. Children are unable to go to school and fisherman can't go to the sea," he said. "It is divine help that has led to these talks under this climate."

Tamil rebels have been fighting since 1983 for independence or a Tamil homeland in the north and east of the country, where the minority Tamil population is concentrated. The war killed 65,000 people the cease-fire was signed in 2002.