The talks, to be held on 22-23 of Febuary will be the first high level discussions since the island's peace process ground to a halt three years ago and is seen as vital to stemming an escalating violence that killed around 200 soldiers, civilians and rebels in two months.

On Monday, Erik Solheim, a Norwegian peace broker told reporters by telephone that "a date has been agreed between the government, the Tigers and Oslo", after meeting chief rebel negotiator Anton Balasingham.

"It is very positive that the parties have agreed to meet at a high level to discuss how to improve the serious security situation," Solheim later added in a statement issued by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The announcement comes a day after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rejected government plans for talks on 15-16 Febuary, citing reported abductions of pro-Tiger aid workers that they blame on the military.

Rebel demand

"It is very positive that the parties have agreed to meet at a high level to discuss how to improve the serious security situation"

Erik Solheim,
Norwegian peace broker

The Tigers say talks must focus on implementation of a ceasefire agreed in 2002, in particular a clause that stipulates the state must disarm paramilitaries the rebels say are attacking them.

They want the government to disarm a renegade rebel faction led by a breakaway commander called Karuna, suspected to be behind a series of attacks in territory in the north and east controlled by the mainstream group.

The Tigers have warned that talks, seen as a chance to build long absent trust between the foes, are doomed if the government tries to amend the terms of the ceasefire.

Cautious optimism

Diplomats said the atmosphere of the talks could well depend on whether seven of the 10 pro-rebel aid workers who are still unaccounted for are released safe.

Gerald Peiris of the University of Peradeniya, said: "If talks fail ... I don't think we are looking at a situation of imminent open war.  But (the violence) we have been having over the past few weeks is likely to continue, and that could spiral out of control."

The Geneva talks are a first step, and peace envoys warn any lasting solution is still a long way off.

New President Mahinda Rajapakse has already rejected the LTTE's demands for a separate homeland in the north and east for ethnic Tamils, and some analysts fear the rebels are insincere about peace in the first place and have simply used the truce to buy time to regroup and rearm.

Rajapakse, who came to power after the Tigers ruined the November presidential election chances of the candidate seen best placed to reach a peace deal by scaring voters away with a boycott, has proved to be more moderate than many had expected.