COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Hopes of ending Sri Lanka's two-decade ethnic conflict were dealt a major setback Monday, as the government announced that face-to-face peace talks with the Tamil Tigers rebels have been indefinitely postponed.
Last week, President Chandrika Kumaratunga (search) sacked three Cabinet ministers and suspended Parliament, as a power struggle with her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (search), came to a head over the peace process. Kumaratunga claimed Wickremesinghe was granting too many concessions to the rebels.
On Monday, Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris said the government would need to resolve who would be responsible for the peace process before talks could resume. His announcement came hours before Norwegian envoys were expected to arrive in Colombo in a bid to revive the peace talks, suspended in April.
"It's realistic to recognize that the events of the last four days have cumulatively placed the peace process at some risk," Peiris told reporters after meeting Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet. "We have to sort out basic issues first before we plunge into talks with the LTT," or Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (search).
Vidar Helgesen, Norway's deputy foreign minister and special envoy Erik Solheim, were due to arrive late Monday. Until the political crisis erupted, they had been expected to arrange a date more peace talks late this month or in December.
Norway has played a pivotal role in trying to broker peace between the two sides in the civil war that has killed nearly 65,000 people. It arranged a cease-fire in February 2002 that still holds. Wickremesinghe has spearheaded peace efforts on the government side.
Since the president fired the ministers of defense, police and media and briefly declared a state of emergency last Tuesday, she has said Wickremesinghe will be allowed to continue the process but under her guidance and control of these key institutions. Wickremesinghe has refused.
Peiris said that Wickremesinghe's administration would support Kumaratunga if she wanted to take responsibility for the peace process.
"One person must have overall charge of the process," Peiris said. "If the president is willing to take responsibility of the peace process in total with the backing of all institutions and stakeholders, then the government is willing to support her."
Peiris said if she wasn't willing, Kumaratunga should hand back the ministries. "The government has put the ball in her court," he said.
Kumaratunga's moves took place while Wickremesinghe was in Washington to meet President Bush.
Both the Tigers and government had said they were ready to renew direct talks, which were broken off in April by the Tigers.
After months of deliberations in Sri Lanka and overseas, the rebels last month handed their first ever power-sharing proposal for the island's Tamil-majority northeast, aimed at forming the basis for renewed negotiations between the two sides.
There was no immediate reaction from the Tigers, who have been largely silent during the political turmoil in Colombo.