June 17, 2008 / 2:46 PM / in 11 years

INTERVIEW - Sri Lanka rebels reject laying down arms for talks

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s Tamil rebels have rejected a request to lay-down or decommission their weapons before peace talks, saying they can still win the war against government forces.

The government said last week it would only reconsider re-starting a peace process if the rebels agreed to lay down or decommission their weapons and issued a clear timetable for negotiations.

But Balasingham Nadesan, the rebels’ political head, said laying down arms could weaken the rebels’ bargaining power during any talks.

“Any approach that disturbs the balance of power and parity of status (between the government and rebels) are counter-productive to the peace process,” Nadesan said in an email interview with Reuters.

“The balance of power and the parity of status are very crucial for any meaningful negotiations.”

The government request came after the rebels said last week they wanted to meet Norwegian peace brokers to resume a stalled peace process.

The government formally ended a tattered truce with the rebels in January, ramping up the civil war in which more than 70,000 people have died since 1983.

The government said the rebels use visits by peace envoys as propaganda.

Nordic ceasefire monitors quit the country this year after the collapse of the six-year-old Norwegian-brokered truce.

The military says the rebels are facing heavy losses in the north, while the rebels, who are fighting for an independent homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east, deny they have been weakened by the surge in fighting.

“The LTTE armed forces are presently only engaging in defensive warfare.... We have full confidence that we will win this war with the help of our Tamil people,” said Nadesan.

He said the government could not defeat the rebels in a conventional war.

“I like to remind you a famous quote in this regard, ‘The conventional army loses if it does not win, but a Liberation movement wins if it does not lose’,” said Nadesan.

Analysts say the Sri Lankan army has the upper hand in the latest phase of the long-running war given superior air power, strength of numbers and swathes of terrain captured in the island’s east. But they still see no clear winner on the horizon.

Military figures show about 5,000 people, most of them rebels, have been killed this year alone, while scores of civilians have died in attacks on buses and trains blamed on the rebels.

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