8 Apr 2002
A strategic highway to the ravaged northern Jaffna peninsula was reopened for the first time in 12 years on Monday after a last minute deal between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels.
The move to reopen the A-9 highway which thousands have died fighting over came in overnight talks brokered by a Norwegian peace mission, official sources said.
"A decision was taken by both parties to stick to the original agreement of opening the road on Monday," the source said. "The modalities were agreed up on only early Monday morning."
When fighting erupting in 1990, the road -- the main land access to the Jaffna peninsula -- was closed for all civilian traffic.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) wrested control of the road from government troops in December 1995 forcing the military and civilians to use expensive sea and air transport.
In May 1997 the Sri Lankan military launched an offensive code-named "Sure Victory" to recapture a 76 kilometre stretch of the highway, but the drive was called off 19 months later in 1999.
A LTTE ferocious counter offensive in November 1999 saw the army lose territory to the rebels, amid the deaths of an estimated 3,500 soldiers. Three times the number were wounded.
The military claimed an equal number of rebels were also killed in the army's bloodiest and longest offensive which ended in disaster.
The terms of reopening the road were set out in a ceasefire pact brokered by Norway which took effect on February 23 and is to be fully implemented within three months.
On April 1, both the LTTE and government forces began removing mines along their front lines at Muhamalai, but there had been doubts if the de-mining could be completed within a week.
There was also a debate on allowing unrestricted access to civilian buses to operate services to Jaffna, after the Tigers demanded that only buses operated by them should travel through their territory. The demand was rejected by the government.
Official sources said under the latest deal, buses will operate between Colombo and Jaffna on the A-9 for the first time in 12 years -- a distance of 400 kilometres.
LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is set to address his first press conference in 12 years on Wednesday inside the rebel-held Wanni region.
The Tigers and the government are due to hold face-to-face talks at a neutral venue in Thailand next month in a bid to end decades of ethnic bloodshed that has claimed more than 60,000 lives.