Sri Lankan government officials and Tamil Tiger rebel delegates arrived in Thailand on Saturday to take part in what could be the most crucial round of peace talks since negotiations started four months ago.
The four-day talks, which will begin Monday, are likely to focus on the army's demand that the rebels disarm and the guerrillas' insistence that the military close facilities in high-security zones to allow tens of thousands of Tamils to return to the northern Jaffna peninsula.
"The high-security zone matter has indeed escalated in importance, and this issue will have to be taken up together with those of rehabilitation," said V. Karuna, a Tamil Tiger negotiator and a top military leader of the rebels. Meanwhile, the guerrillas warned that disarming at this stage is "nonnegotiable."
A tough stance by both sides has raised fears of a deadlock, but government officials played down the differences.
"This is a long journey, and we have just started scratching the surface. The deeper we go, there will be more difficult issues ... the only way to resolve these is to talk," said Bernard Goonetilleke, who heads the government body handling the peace process.
The government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam entered the Norway-brokered peace talks in September to try to resolve a bloody ethnic war.