By KRISHAN FRANCIS, Associated Press Writer
Tue May 23, 1:26 PM ET
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Tamil Tiger rebels Tuesday rejected pleas from Buddhist and Catholic priests to hold direct talks with Sri Lanka’s president to stop the island nation from sliding back into full-scale civil war.
The refusal came as the government announced the arrival of two top international peace envoys this week for urgent meetings aimed at salvaging the country’s tattered cease-fire.
S.P. Thamilselvan, the head of the rebels’ political wing, told the clergymen who met him in the northern guerrilla stronghold of Kilinochchi that the group can’t "bypass Norway in establishing contacts with the government to initiate a dialogue with President Mahinda Rajapakse," the rebels said on their Web site.
Norway has mediated in Sri Lanka’s peace process since 2000.
The priests told Thamilselvan that Rajapakse had expressed his desire to meet the reclusive leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Velupillai Prabhakaran, to find a negotiated solution to the island’s protracted conflict.
Erik Solheim, who negotiated Sri Lanka’s 2002 government-rebel cease-fire and is Norway’s international development minister, was set to arrive Thursday to join fellow envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer, due Wednesday, said government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella.
The envoys hope talks with government and rebel leaders will bring them back to peace talks that have stalled amid rising violence and recriminations between the sides. A senior Tamil Tiger rebel leader said the envoys’ chances were "bleak."
On Tuesday, the military said it killed a guerrilla after a group of rebels fired at the soldiers in eastern Sri Lanka, the army media unit said.
The attack took place near eastern Batticaloa, 140 miles east of Colombo, while the soldiers patrolled on foot. Government troops were not injured, it added.
"They will talk to the parties to make them return to the table," Rambukwella said. "We are ready to resume the peace process."
Senior rebel leader Seevaratnam Puleedevan said resuming peace talks is unlikely as long as attacks he blamed on the government were still being launched.
"The situation has not improved ; violence against us is going on," Puleedevan said by the telephone from Kilinochchi.
"The prospects are bleak, but nevertheless let the Norwegian envoys discuss how the situation can be improved," he said. "We have to wait and see."
The government and the rebels held peace talks in Geneva in February but a second round slated for April was canceled after they blamed rising violence on each other.
Tensions rose again on Saturday, when Col. Ramanan, the Tigers’ No. 2 leader and intelligence chief for eastern Sri Lanka, was killed in an ambush.
A breakaway Tamil group claimed responsibility, and the military denied involvement. But the mainstream rebels blamed the government.
The rebel movement split in 2004, when one of its military commanders broke away with 6,000 fighters.
The Tigers accuse the government of supporting the breakaway group in its attacks on the mainstream faction’s fighters - a charge the army denies.
Surging violence has killed nearly 300 people since April, raising fears that Sri Lanka is heading back to full-scale civil war.
The Tigers have fought the government since 1983, demanding a separate homeland for the minority Tamils, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.
More than 65,000 people were killed before the 2002 cease-fire accord halted 19 years of open warfare.