updated 11/19/2005 5:57:57 PM ET 2005-11-19T22:57:57

Sri Lanka’s new president, sworn in Saturday, promised to renew peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels but reiterated his opposition to their demand for an independent state on the Indian Ocean island.

“I affirm my government’s continued commitment to the cease-fire,” President Mahinda Rajapakse said of the Norwegian-brokered 2002 truce that brought an end to fighting after nearly two decades of civil war.

But his hardline stand on the guerrillas’ homeland demand puts him at odds with the rebels who claim the country’s 3.2 million ethnic Tamils can prosper only away from the domination of the 14 million-strong Sinhalese majority.

Rajapakse said he was not for war, but an honorable peace.

“War is not my method,” he said in his first formal address after being sworn in. “I will initiate a new round of talks with all those who have a stake in the solution of the national question.”

The government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam held six rounds of inconclusive peace talks before they were halted in April 2003 over the rebels’ sweeping demands for autonomy.

Tamil homeland
The rebels have fought since 1983 for a Tamil homeland in the northeast, where they already run a de facto state. The war has claimed 65,000 lives.

But Rajapakse said dividing the country is not the answer.

“During the presidential election, the overwhelming majority of people said that the country should not be divided,” Rajapakse said. “It is this aspiration that would be the basis of my policy for achieving peace.”

Rajapakse called for a review of the 2002 cease-fire, which has become increasingly uneasy in recent months with almost daily killings of rebels from rival factions, civilians and intelligence agents.

Hours before the swearing-in, the Norwegian government said it would continue to act as a peace broker if asked. Rajapakse did not mention the Norwegian offer.

He has also pledged not to allow direct foreign tsunami aid to the insurgents, who have repeatedly demanded access to some of the $2 billion promised to Sri Lanka so they can run their own relief effort. The Dec. 26 tsunami killed at least 31,000 people in Sri Lanka and swept away the homes or livelihoods of 1 million others.

The rebels declined to comment on Rajapakse’s remarks.

Rebel boycott
Rajapakse, 60, narrowly defeated challenger Ranil Wickremesinghe in a vote Friday marred by a rebel boycott that prevented thousands of ethnic Tamils from casting ballots.

Observers said Rajapakse faces a giant task trying to reunite the country after winning the election with only 50 percent of the vote. Wickremesinghe, who favored granting concessions to the rebels, took 48 percent.

“The position he had taken during the election campaign will make it difficult for him to reverse the decline” in relations between the government and the rebels, political analyst Jehan Perera said.

The independent Island newspaper said in an editorial Saturday that Rajapakse would have to deal with the conflict immediately.

“The ethnic question is already staring at him in the face,” the newspaper said. “He will have to unveil his plans as to how he is going to deal with the problem which has defied remedies for two decades.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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