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Saturday, 13 April, 2002, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
Sri Lanka Muslims in peace pact
Scene of a bomb blast in Colombo
Violence has claimed at least 65,000 lives so far
Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels have reached a landmark agreement with the island's Muslim minority in the latest stage of the island's peace process, it was announced on Saturday.

The Tigers have agreed that 100,000 Muslims it forced out of rebel areas in 1990 can return home, a senior Muslim leader said.

The accord comes days after the Tigers apologised for expelling the Muslims.

The move comes as Norway's deputy foreign minister arrived in Sri Lanka on Saturday to help finalise arrangement for direct talks between the Tigers and the government due to be held in Thailand next month.

Muslim representation

Muslims are Sri Lanka's biggest minority after the Tamils, forming some eight-per-cent of the population.

The breakthrough between the two sides came after the head of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), Rauff Hakeem, flew to the rebel held town of Kilinochchi to meet the Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Velupillai Prabhakaran
Prabhakaran insists ban on Tigers must be lifter

Mr Hakeem also said the Tigers had promised to end the practice of collecting illegal taxes from Muslims in the east of the island.

"I asked Mr. Prabhakaran from when this will be done," Mr Hakeem said on his return to Colombo.

"He said: 'You will see how my writ runs. It will be done immediately'," the AFP news agency reports.

The SLMC is looking to be represented in next month's talks, the first direct talks since Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was elected last December on a pledge to end Sri Lanka's civil war that has cost some 65,000 lives.

Last week Tamil Tiger spokesman Anton Balasingham described the 1990 expulsions of Muslims from Tamil areas as a political blunder.

He said the Tigers would allow Muslims to return home once the current cease-fire was stabilised.

That opened the way for Mr Hakeem to say he was ready for talks with the Tigers.

US support

Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen is also due to visit the Tamil Tigers in the north of the country later this week as his country continues to play a crucial mediating role in the talks.

One key obstacle to be overcome is the Tamil Tigers' insistence that the government lift its ban on the organisation before the Thailand talks take place.

The United States on Friday urged the Tigers to "unequivocally" abandon violence.

A statement issued by the US embassy in Colombo welcomed rebel chief Velupillai Prabhakaran's support for the ongoing peace negotiations and said violence could not achieve the Tigers' stated objectives.

The statement followed a rare press conference by Mr Prabhakaran on Wednesday where he declared his commitment to the peace process but said he was not ready to give up arms immediately.

See also:

11 Apr 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka prepared to lift Tiger ban
11 Apr 02 | South Asia
India will not lift Tiger ban
08 Apr 02 | South Asia
Key Sri Lanka road opens
29 Mar 02 | South Asia
Direct talks in Sri Lankan conflict
22 Feb 02 | South Asia
Ceasefire signed in Sri Lanka
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