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Britain mulls bigger role in Sri Lanka

Underlining Britain’s intent to play a bigger role in Sri Lanka’s ethnic question, visiting junior foreign minister Kim Howells announced London’s readiness to facilitate peace talks with the LTTE, which is proscribed in the UK as a terrorist group.

Mr. Howells also declared that his country would be cracking down on the LTTE’s ability to raise funds abroad and accused the LTTE of extorting money.

Dr. Howells met with President Rajapakse to discuss a British role. Photo FCO

Wrapping up a three-day visit mid-February to assess the impact of renewed war on thousands of displaced families in the island's restive east, Mr. Howells said Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse had given the green light to the idea of talks with Tigers.

“We'd be delighted to become more involved in helping to facilitate the peace process,” Mr. Howells told reporters.

“We asked the president a very specific question. We said how do you feel about a situation where we might talk to the LTTE and he said: 'As long as it's part of the peace-building process, we have no objections to that.’”

Asked about Britain’s possible role as facilitator, a role hitherto performed by Norway, Mr. Howells said “we have no objections to doing it. It is important for us as well, since Britain only talks to terrorist groups if they are part of the peace process.”

“We certainly are prepared to engage in conversation with representatives of the LTTE if those conversations are part of the peace process, which we believe will lead to peace,” he said.

Saying that Britain, which banned the LTTE in 2001 and pushed hard for the EU-wide ban in 2006, was determined to cut off the Tigers’ access to funding and weapons, he accused the LTTE of extorting money from Tamils in Britain.

“We certainly want to squeeze their [Tigers’] ability to buy guns and explosives to murder Sri Lankans,” Howells said.

“There are about 200,000 Tamils living in Britain and we take a very serious view to the way the LTTE extorts money. It's not part of British life,” he said.

The British offer comes as Norway, which has been facilitating peace in the embattled island since 1999, is adopting a low profile following years of criticism by Sinhala nationalists, including those now in government in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s hardline President Rajapakse was elected in November 2005 on a platform denouncing the Norwegians as baised towards the LTTE.

The international community, which has long backed Norway’s initiative in Sri Lanka, has in recent months also avoided explicit endorsement of Oslo’s efforts.

Before his visit, Howells said Britain's experience in Northern Ireland was proof that violence is not the way to achieve peace.

He warned Sri Lanka's international reputation would be tarnished if the war continued, referring to widespread human rights abuses and humanitarian crises in the Northeast.

“There are similarities with the conflict here and what we had in Northern Ireland. But the important thing to keep in mind is that war is not the answer,” Howells said.

In a written commentary released before his visit, Mr. Howells also called for a ceasefire to pave the way for talks.

“[In Northern Ireland] we learned that there had to be a working cease-fire in force in order for meaningful peace talks to be possible. Politicians cannot be expected to make the compromises necessary for peace against a backdrop of violence and the public outrage this causes.”

“If adhered to, Norwegian-facilitated cease-fire of 2002 would offer a good base from which to launch a new peace initiative,” he said.

Urging all parties to build trust and remain committed to resolving the conflict, Mr. Howells called for sustained peace talks, in an implicit criticism of recent Norwegian efforts.

“It's not good taking people to Geneva for two or three days every six months. You really need to have a go at it, ensure people trust each other and that there is an urgency for an eventual outcome.”

“You can't do peace talks on a part-time basis.”

In a his written commentary, Mr. Howells hailed the UK’s friendship with Sri Lanka, a former colony which gained independence in 1947, but since then has been ruled by Sinhala dominated governments which have discriminated against the Tamils.

“Britain has long been a friend of Sri Lanka. That friendship is built on a wide range of shared interests and contacts, not least the large number of people of Sri Lankan origin who have made Britain their home,” he wrote.

Since the early eighties, large numbers of Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka have sought refuge in Britain, joining earlier waves of Tamil immigrants.

Before the UK’s 2001 ban, the LTTE maintained offices, including its International Secretariat, in London.

London was also home to the LTTE’s late chief negotiator and theoretician, Mr. Anton Balasingham, who passed away after a brief illness last December.

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