Accessibility links

Breaking News

Sri Lanka Rebel Leader Says He is Committed to Peace - 2002-04-10

In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran says he is committed to peace, but his group will not give up its demand for a separate state for the country's Tamil minority community.

Mr. Prabhakaran was addressing his first news conference in more than a decade. It was a rare public appearance for a man known as the leader of one of the world's most fierce guerrilla groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Mr.Prabhakaran met the media as the Tamil Tigers prepare to take part in negotiations to end the island's civil war.

The 47-year-old rebel leader told journalists conditions are not yet right for giving up the fight for an independent Tamil state. But Mr. Prabhakaran said the ceasefire negotiated in February between his group and the Sri Lankan government demonstrates his commitment to peace.

The two sides are due to hold peace talks next month. The Sri Lankan government has said it is prepared to consider all demands except that of a separate Tamil homeland. Mr. Prabhakaran's position on the issue was anxiously awaited.

The rebel leader sidestepped a clear answer, saying an independent Eelam or Tamil homeland was a long-standing political demand of the Tamil people, but that his group has not made any decisions.

"The question of whether we accept hegemony of the Sri Lankan state does not arise at a stage when we have not yet started peace process," he said.

Mr. Prabhakaran also called on India to play a greater role in the peace process.

The rebels mounted tight security for Mr. Prabhakaran's news conference, held near the northern rebel stronghold, Killinochi. Journalists were frisked and asked to leave telephones and computers one kilometer away from the site.

Mr. Prabhakaran was apparently looking for a change in his image from a fierce guerrilla leader to a political statesman. He appeared in a safari suit, and not the usual battle fatigues in which he has been previously photographed.

Mr. Prabhakaran founded the Tamil Tigers, three decades ago, and transformed it from a bunch of barefoot soldiers into a tough fighting force.

He has the reputation of ruthlessness. Suicide bombers from his group's cadres have been blamed for several high-profile assassinations, including that of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The group is banned in several countries as a terrorist organization. But the rebel leader repeated demands that the group's outlaw status must be lifted by the Sri lankan government before it joins peace talks.

Political analysts say Mr. Prabhakaran's media appearance sends a signal that the man known mainly for fighting a seemingly unending civil war is willing to join a political process.

A former Indian ambassador to Sri Lanka, J.N. Dixit agrees.

"He wants to project himself as a serious political leader, now prepared to engage in negotiations with the Sri Lankan government," he said. "Second he wants to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the international media and foreign governments in the context of his group having been banned as a terrorist group. Third he wishes perhaps to give broad description of his approach to forthcoming negotiations between him and the Sri Lankan government."

Mr. Prabhakaran's decision to speak about the peace process has generated optimism that some headway might be made in the peace talks scheduled to begin in Thailand next month