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Mahinda Rajapakse meets Tony Blair in Athens:

British PM commends Govt's genuine peace efforts

Dinesh Weerawansa reporting from Greece

ATHENS, Friday - British Prime Minister Tony Blair commended the genuine efforts made by the Sri Lankan Government to go ahead with the peace process and promised their fullest support to find a peaceful solution to the island's ethnic conflict.

Blair gave this assurance when he met the visiting Sri Lanka Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse here last evening. The discussion took place at the official residence of the British Ambassador to Greece, following a meeting with the leaders of the Commonwealth who are here to attend today's opening ceremony of the XXV111th summer Olympic Games here.

Blair appreciated the contribution made and the keenness shown by Sri Lanka to achieve peace in Sri Lanka and said that they would support in obtaining the backing of the international community to recommence peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The British Prime Minister said the world leaders would be united in facing international terrorism.

He noted that the Britain would strongly back Sri Lanka in its efforts to find a permanent solution to the conflict in the island's war-torn North East Province.

He said Britain would also explore possibilities of assisting in the humanitarian work in the affected areas.

Prime Minister Rajapakse briefed his British counterpart on the steps taken by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to start the peace talks with the LTTE soon. Rajapakse said the Sri Lankan Government is ready to discuss on an honourable solution, acceptable to all communities in the country.

The Lankan PM recalled that it was President Kumaratunga who extended the hands of goodwill to the LTTE after assuming office in 1994 and also invited Norway to become the facilitator for the peace process in Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister Rajapakse requested Blair to add more weight to international support in bringing the LTTE to the negotiating table.

"What is important at this stage is the early resumption of the peace talks. Both sides have their own views and demands. But first we must sit down and talk. Then only we could narrow the gap and see in which way the two sides contribute to go for a peaceful settlement," he said.

The Lankan Premier added that the Government is committed to peace and is ready to get back to peace talks as soon as possible. He also appreciated efforts made by the Norwegian Government and the international community in getting the LTTE back to the negotiating table.

Associated with the Prime Minister at the meeting with Blair was the Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Italy, E. Rodney M. Perera, who is also overseeing the Lankan Consulate offices in Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Albania.

Rajapakse is making the maximum use of the opportunity he got to attend the Olympic Games in the Greek capital and has spoken to several world leaders on bilateral issues.

The Lankan Premier said the original invitation to grace the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games was extended to President Kumaratunga by the IOC through the National Olympic Committee of Sri Lanka. Since the President is unable to make it due to a busy schedule, she has nominated the Prime Minister to represent her.

The Sri Lanka Prime Minister is due to meet the Norwegian Prime Minister and Greek President Costas Stefanopoulos on the final day of his short official visit here. Rajapakse said it was his Norwegian counterpart, who is amongst many world leaders for the Olympic Games opening, who requested a meeting with him.

"Obviously Norway wants to discuss certain matters before we resume peace talks. They are keen to persuade the LTTE to talk on peace. Our Government is ready for talks. We will clarify our position and willingness for peace talks to Norway so that they could make arrangements to get the talks going," the Lankan PM said.

Tomorrow's meeting between Rajapakse and President Stefanopoulos will be the first meeting between Sri Lankan and Greek leaders after many years. They would discuss on bilateral issues.

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