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Top Sri Lanka Rebel Tells Media Independence Is Still Goal

April 11, 2002|From Associated Press

KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka — The Tamil Tiger chief, one of South Asia's most wanted men, made his first public appearance in 15 years on Wednesday, emerging from a jungle hide-out to say he will not yet abandon the fight for an independent state.

"The struggle for political independence is the demand of Tamil people," said the reclusive rebel leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Still, he insisted that his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are "sincerely and seriously committed to peace," as demonstrated by their declared cease-fire in the 19-year-old separatist war.

Prabhakaran also expressed confidence that a Norwegian-mediated peace process will succeed.

"This is the first time a third party or government has involved itself in facilitating the peace process," Prabhakaran said of the more than two years of Norwegian efforts that culminated in a cease-fire agreement Feb. 22.

"With the mediation help by the Norwegian government, I believe this process will succeed this time," he said.

Prabhakaran's Tamil Tigers have been fighting government forces since 1983 to create a separate homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The civil war, one of Asia's longest, has cost more than 64,000 lives.

Flanked by guards in camouflaged body armor and armed with automatic rifles, Prabhakaran addressed the news conference at a secret location near rebel-held Kilinochchi, about 175 miles north of the capital, Colombo.

Journalists underwent six hours of security checks before being allowed in, with the guerrillas searching between toes and in mouths, and checking pens and notebook pages.

Cleanshaven and dressed in a gray safari suit instead of his trademark battle fatigues and pistol, Prabhakaran spoke in the Tamil language and his remarks were translated by an aide.

The rebels and the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are scheduled to hold peace talks next month in Thailand.

But Prabhakaran said Wednesday that there will be no talks until the government lifts a ban on his group, which has been declared a terrorist organization in six countries, including the United States.

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