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Sri Lanka Optimistic About Peace with Tamil Rebels - 2002-04-11

Sri Lanka's government has welcomed peace overtures by the Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, saying there is now an opportunity to find a political solution to the country's long-running civil war. The guerrilla leader has said he is committed to peace, although his group has not abandon its demand for a separate Tamil homeland.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe says the country can intensify the peace process because Mr. Prabhakaran has given many positive indications of his commitment to sit down and talk.

The Tamil rebel leader emerged from years of hiding to address his first news conference, Wednesday. Mr. Prabhakaran repeated his demands for a separate Tamil state, but said the rebels would respond to offers made by the government.

Mr. Wickremesinghe says this represents a "window of opportunity." He says the guerrilla leader has hinted that he is willing to settle for internal autonomy.

The prime minister says his government will try to balance its concerns, as it weighs its options on lifting a ban on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Mr. Prabhakaran has said he will not join peace talks until his group's outlaw status is revoked.

The Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil rebels are scheduled to begin peace talks next month. This is the fifth bid for peace since the civil war erupted, two decades ago.

But, this time, there is hope the Norwegian-brokered peace plan could pave the way for a political solution.

The head of Sri Lanka's independent Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, says the mood is one of cautious optimism. "The reaction is yes, the LTTE is out to signal its commitment to the peace process as it stands at the moment and also send out the message that it is capable and committed to entering mainstream political activity," Mr. Saravanamuttu said. However many ordinary people in Sri Lanka remain skeptical about the group's intentions, and say they are not yet willing to trust the rebels.

The Tamil Tigers have been among the world's deadliest guerrilla groups, blamed for carrying out more than 150 suicide bombings. Mr. Prabhakaran told journalists the attacks are a thing of the past. Mr. Saravanamuttu says he believes the Tigers are willing to give up violence. "One of the key factors is the realization that there is a limited utility, if any utility at all, in the use of violence at this point, as far as their political objectives are concerned. Secondly, the events of September 11th have served as a catalyst in this respect, in restricting the space internationally, globally, for them to carry on their operations in the way that they have done in the past," Mr. Saravanamuttu said.

Political analysts say the government has its own reasons for talking peace. The fighting has killed 64,000 people; the economy is buckling under the pressure of huge defense spending; and Sri Lanka's tourism industry has been badly hit by the civil war.