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Sri Lankan Rebel Leader Lays Ultimatium on Table - 2002-11-27


In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran says he will accept regional autonomy for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority population, but has threatened to resume the group's separatist struggle, if the demand is not met.

The Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels embarked on a peace process earlier this year, raising hopes of ending a civil war that began 19 years ago.

Tamil rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran says he is willing to consider a political framework that offers his community what he calls substantial regional autonomy and self-government, on the basis of their right to self-determination.

But he warns the rebels will secede, and form an independent state, if the demand is rejected.

Mr. Prabhakaran was speaking on rebel radio on "Heroes Day", an annual celebration held in the north and the east to honor guerrilla fighters. It was his first public comment on the Norwegian-brokered peace process, which began in February this year with a truce between the government and the rebels.

Two rounds of peace talks have been held, so far. A third round begins in Norway next week. It is expected to focus on political issues underlying the conflict.

During the first round of peace talks, rebel negotiators said the Tamil Tigers are willing to settle for autonomy. But Mr. Prabhakaran's statement is considered significant because it is the clearest signal yet that the guerrillas are prepared to drop their decades-old demand for a separate state.

The rebel leader, who founded one of the world's fiercest guerrilla groups, also expressed his commitment to the peace process. He said it is his deepest desire that the peace talks should succeed, and he appealed to the country's Sinhalese majority to support the aspirations of the Tamil people.

Mr. Prabhakaran's comments come just two days after the peace process got a boost, with several countries pledging nearly $70 million in aid to rebuild the war-ravaged regions in Sri Lanka, and expressing support for the peace process.

The Tamil Tigers began their struggle for an independent homeland for the minority Tamil community in 1983, complaining of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese community. The civil war has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

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