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Tamil Rebel Broadcasts Stir Anger, Controversy - 2003-01-16

In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels have begun beaming radio broadcasts into government-controlled regions for the first time since they began their struggle for a separate homeland nearly two-decades ago. The move has raised political controversy in the island nation.

Tamil rebels began their upgraded radio services with a broadcast about peace efforts in the country.

The Voice of Tigers radio station has long been illegal and restricted to a limited area the rebels controlled in the north. It primarily gives the rebels' version of their fight against the Sri Lanka government.

But the controversial importation of new, advanced broadcast equipment is helping the guerrillas reach listeners in other parts of the nation. The rebels say they want to inform people about the effort that began last year to end the ethnic conflict.

The political opposition and sections of the local media have attacked the government, saying the rebels have been handed a powerful propaganda tool.

Rohan Edrisinha, director of the Sri Lanka's independent Center for Policy Alternatives, says there is deep anger among several Sinhala groups because the government allowed the rebels to easily obtain the sophisticated equipment.

The equipment came from Norway, which is acting as a mediator in the peace process.

"In Sri Lanka, the focus of attention has been more on how the Tamil Tigers got this particular equipment," he explained. "And there was a lot of controversy because the Norwegian facilitators actually got involved in helping to facilitate the acquisition of this transmission station. And this caused a lot of resentment. "

The government's chief negotiator in the peace talks, GL Peiris, defends the decision to let the rebels expand their broadcasts. He says the rebels should be allowed to voice their views. He says it is not helpful to the peace process to, in his words, gag one-party's views.

Political observers say the rebels' move to extend their reach outside their stronghold is significant. They say the rebels are targeting not only Tamil audiences - but also the majority Sinhala community, which is likely to play a key role in the peaceful resolution of the two-decade-old civil war. The broadcasts are being made in both the Tamil and Sinhala languages.

It is seen as an important step in the rebels' effort to transform from guerrilla group into a political organization.