COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — In what could be the last, best hope for averting all-out war, the government of this island nation and the rebel Tamil Tigers are due to sit down today for their first face-to-face talks in months over one of Asia's most intractable conflicts.
Both sides have been stung by heavy losses and international criticism in recent weeks, following a surge in combat that has left hundreds dead and thousands more refugees in their own country, forced to flee homes and livelihoods to avoid the crossfire.
In the charged atmosphere, no one is predicting that substantive advances will be made at the negotiating table. But so fierce has been the fighting that even getting the two longtime adversaries to meet today and Sunday in Geneva is being trumpeted as an achievement, and welcomed by residents desperate for a reprieve from the bloodletting.
"For the first round, we are happy that they're going at all," said Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. "The best thing we can hope for is that they commit themselves to stop the violence."
The violence threatens to engulf this teardrop-shaped island, spilling over from the north and east, where the fighting had, until recently, mostly been confined and where the highly armed rebels want to establish an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic-minority Tamils.
Military checkpoints now ring this capital, in the southwest, amid fears of further attacks like the mine explosion that nearly killed the Pakistani ambassador two months ago. Last week, Tamil Tiger suicide bombers aboard fishing boats shocked the Sri Lankan navy by mounting an assault on a naval base at Galle, a southern port city popular with tourists and far from the traditional theater of war.
Both sides, their casualty counts spiraling since July, are licking their wounds. They are also under intense diplomatic pressure, much of it from major donor countries, to go back to a 2002 cease-fire deal rendered defunct since late last year, when fighting broke wide open again.
"You're getting peace talks because both sides want to communicate to the international community their willingness to negotiate," said analyst Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, adding: "I would put the bar of expectations fairly low."
This week, Sri Lankan officials unveiled seven areas of discussion they want to pursue with the rebels, including human rights violations and the recruitment of children as fighters, a tactic for which the Tamil Tigers are notorious.
Also on the agenda are issues of economic development and greater autonomy in the north and east -- tacit admission by the government that it has failed to address some fundamental grievances underlying discontent in those regions. Sri Lanka's Tamil population has complained for decades of discrimination and persecution at the hands of the majority Sinhalese, who dominate politics and the armed forces.
"It's a new approach," Keheliya Rambukwella, the chief government spokesman, said in an interview here.
"Our interest is how to give benefit to the Tamil community. We are not interested in pacifying the LTTE or any terrorist groups," he said, referring to the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Bolstering the government's position is a new cooperation pact with the main Sinhalese opposition parties on resolving the conflict. The accord gives President Mahinda Rajapakse more flexibility by lessening his dependence on the hard-line right-wing parties that helped elevate him to power last year.
However, Rambukwella is modest about what measurable outcomes can emerge from the weekend talks, the first such tete-a-tete since February. Most likely, the government's seven points will have to wait for the future, he acknowledges; the best result to be expected in Switzerland is that both sides agree to talk again, and write down dates in their calendars.
"This time, you sit together and say hello," Rambukwella said.
The Tigers have not responded directly to the government's new plan. Their priority in Geneva, spokesman Daya Master said, will be on easing the growing humanitarian crisis on the Jaffna peninsula in the north, where choked-off roads have led to food shortages and other hardships.
A cessation of hostilities would be possible, he said, "if the Sri Lanka government is willing to stop the military operations." Most observers, however, blame the Tigers for breaching the 2002 truce and initiating the latest cycle of attack and counterattack.
Guerrilla leaders have warned that the Geneva talks represent the island's last chance for peace. Failure, they say, would mean a return to the full-throated civil war of old, in which about 65,000 people have been killed in the last 23 years.
It is difficult to gauge whether such comments are merely bluster or brinkmanship. Many analysts believe that both sides are exhausted from fighting and that the negotiations provide a breather, if nothing else.
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