In their first face-to-face meeting since February, representatives from both sides gathered at a conference centre near the United Nations' European headquarters on Saturday for talks facilitated by Eirik Solheim, the Norwegian international development minister

Speaking to delegates, Solheim stressed that patience has worn thin among most Sri Lankans and the international community: "We have shown a lot of patience and we are prepared to show more, but the people in Sri Lanka and the international community will be impatient."

"The aim of these talks is to find ways to reduce and then stop the violence," he said.

Solheim also said that the island risked losing huge foreign aid and goodwill unless the government and Tamil Tiger rebels worked towards a final political solution based on a federal formula agreed in December 2002.

However, he said that the gathering, which was arranged after intense international pressure on the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, was a step in the right direction.

"These talks constitute a small ray of hope, at least a step in  the right direction," he said.

Strained handshake

"There may not be a dramatic outcome of the talks, but what is  expected is to be able to agree on dates for future talks. We are looking at dates in December and January"

A diplomatic source close to the peace process

Nimal Siripala de Silva, the head of the Sri Lankan government delegation, and S P Thamilselvan, the head of the political wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), shook hands at the invitation of Solheim, signalling the start of talks.

A diplomatic source close to the process said: "There may not be a dramatic outcome of the talks, but what is  expected is to be able to agree on dates for future talks. We are looking at dates in December and January."

Peace broker Norway was unable to prepare a mutually agreed agenda for the two-day meeting.
  
The Tigers insists that humanitarian issues, including the reopening of a key highway to Sri Lanka's northern peninsula of f Jaffna be taken up. But, the Sri Lankan government wants political issues to be thrashed out first.
  
Both are under international pressure to address human rights issues, with civilians increasingly caught up in fighting and even being targeted for attack.
  
Solheim noted that renewed fighting had also displaced over 200,000 people within the island.
  
Thamilselvan said before the start of Saturday's meeting: "We would consider the outcome of the talks a success only if we can get the humanitarian issues sorted out over the weekend." Thamilselvan highlighted road access to the northen Jaffna peninsula.

He also warned that failure of the Swiss talks could lead to "real, real war" in Sri Lanka.

Violence continued

Renewed fighting has displaced
over 200,000 people in the island

Hours before the talks began, two claymore mines exploded in Sri Lanka's restive eastern and northern provinces, wounding a total of seven policemen, one badly.

Police in the capital Colombo stepped up security, erecting roadblocks and searching each vehicle entering the city.

Checkpoints created long queues of cars and trucks, bringing  traffic to a halt.

About 1,000 people, many of them civilians, have died in a surge in fighting since July. It is the worst violence since a 2002 truce and many thousands of people have been displaced.

More than 65,000 people have died since 1983 when the conflict began.

The LTTE is fighting for an independent homeland for Tamils, many of whom complain of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese political class and government.