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Sri Lanka: Tamil Rebel Leader Sentenced in Absentia - 2002-10-31

In Sri Lanka, a court has sentenced the leader of the Tamil Tigers to 200 years in jail for a 1996 bomb attack in Colombo. The sentence was handed down as the Tamil rebels and the Sri Lankan government began a second round of peace talks in Thailand. But government officials say the verdict is not likely to set back the peace process.

The Colombo High Court found Tamil Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and four others guilty of plotting an attack in which a truck packed with explosives was rammed into the Sri Lankan Central Bank in Colombo, killing more than 90 people. The court has ordered that the convicted men should be taken into custody immediately.

The verdict was passed in Prabhakaran's absence. The reclusive Tamil leader lives in the jungles in northern Sri Lanka, closely guarded by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which he founded three decades ago.

Prabhakaran's LTTE is a tough guerrilla force that has been blamed for more than 200 suicide attacks. The group has also been blamed for several high profile assassinations, including that of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

It is not clear what effect the sentence will have on the Norwegian-brokered peace talks, which are the first concerted attempt to settle the civil war that has raged for nearly two decades in Sri Lanka. The first-round of talks was held last month, the second-round began hours before the court handed down the sentence in Colombo.

But the government's chief negotiator at the talks in Thailand, G.L. Peiris, expressed confidence that the High Court ruling will not disrupt efforts at reaching a settlement with the rebels. He told the French news agency, "We can not see how the court decision will affect the peace process."

The peace talks have raised hopes that Prabhakaran is willing to join the political process. In recent months, he has made an effort to shed his image as a guerrilla leader, meeting some diplomats and holding a news conference earlier in the year.

In recent weeks, both government officials and Tamil rebels have given an upbeat assessment on the prospects for peace. Each saying they expect to face several hurdles along the way, but they remain committed to reaching a negotiated settlement.

Tamil rebels waged their struggle for an independent homeland for the Tamil minority, but have now indicated they are willing to settle for autonomy.