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UNHCR's Lubbers welcomes Sri Lanka peace talks

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UNHCR's Lubbers welcomes Sri Lanka peace talks

16 August 2002

16 August 2002

GENEVA - The United Nations High Commissioner for refugees today (Friday) hailed the decision by the Sri Lankan government to begin direct peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels. "The announcement carries a huge potential promise of return for hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by the Sri Lankan conflict," said High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers.

The Norwegian government, which has played a mediation role in negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels, announced on Wednesday that peace talks would begin between September 12th and September 17th in Thailand.

The 19 year-old conflict - one of south Asia's longest running - uprooted 800,000 people within the country and drove another 80,000 out of Sri Lanka.

UNHCR, which first became involved in Sri Lanka in 1987, said an estimated 100,000 internally displaced people had gone home since a Norwegian-brokered truce between the government forces and the LTTE rebels was announced last February, while another 1,000 had returned from India.

"Now that lasting peace is in sight, we have to get ready to help hundreds of thousands of people get back to their war-ravaged towns and villages," said Lubbers.

The Sri Lankan peace talks announcement coincided with the visit to the island by Assistant High Commissioner Kamel Morjane - UNHCR's third highest ranking official. Morjane, who visited the Jaffna peninsula earlier this week, said he was shocked by the level of destruction. But he said he was also surprised by the courage and the stamina of those who are already going back despite many difficulties.

Morjane said he was cautiously optimistic but he noted that the widespread destruction of property, especially in Jaffna, meant that considerable funds would be needed to ensure the feasibility of the return of Sri Lankans uprooted by the conflict.