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Sri Lanka Lifts Ban on Tamil Tigers - 2002-09-05

In Sri Lanka, the government says it has demonstrated its commitment to ending the long-running civil war in the country by lifting a four-year old ban on Tamil Tiger rebels. The move clears the last major obstacle in starting peace talks between the government and the Tamil guerrillas - known to be one of the world's fiercest guerrilla groups.

Hours after lifting a ban on the Tamil Tigers, Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando said "we want to bring an end to the conflict." The government says the move was made two days earlier than expected to express trust and confidence in the rebels.

The government ended the ban to meet a key rebel demand before landmark peace talks begin in Thailand on September 16. The guerrillas had refused to join the dialogue as an outlawed group.

The lifting of the ban is mostly symbolic because the Tamil Tigers already operate political offices in the north and east under the terms of a cease-fire negotiated earlier this year.

Nevertheless, there is some powerful opposition to the government's move to legalize the group. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the powerful Buddhist clergy and Sinhala nationalist groups say they support the peace process but had wanted the ban to stay in place until substantial progress was achieved in reaching a settlement with the rebels.

The government has also denied reports that President Kumaratunga had legal powers to reimpose the ban.

The Tamil Tigers have been among the world's deadliest guerrilla groups. They are blamed for carrying out more than 150 suicide bombings since they launched a struggle for an independent Tamil homeland in 1983. The group was banned four years ago after being blamed for a suicide truck bomb attack on the country's holiest Buddhist shrine.

But political analysts say there is considerable public support for the government's move in lifting the ban.

The Director of Sri Lanka's independent Center for Policy Alternatives, Rohan Edrisinhe, says there is a mood of cautious optimism. "Most people accept that it is an important part of the peace process, that it is something that had to be done for the peace process to move forward," he said.

Residents of war-torn Jaffna, which has witnessed most of the fighting in the last two decades, also welcomed the move.

The peace talks to be held later this month will be the first in nearly seven years. They are seen as the most significant effort so far in finding a political solution to the ethnic conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people.

The end to the outlaw status of the Tamil Tigers is unlikely to have an impact on the ban imposed on them by several other countries, including the United States, Britain and India. A British Foreign office has said they will only reconsider the ban if the Tigers demonstrate a complete and convincing renunciation of terrorism. Other countries are expected to do the same.