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Sri Lanka Ends Ban on Tamil Guerrillas

September 05, 2002|From Times Wire Services

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The Sri Lankan government lifted its ban on the Tamil Tiger rebels Wednesday, paving the way for peace talks to end the island nation's 19-year civil war.

Given the midnight hour of the lifting of the 4-year-old ban on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, there was no immediate reaction in Colombo, the capital.

Defense Minister Thilak Marapana told the Cabinet that he used his powers to end the ban, meeting a key rebel demand ahead of peace talks scheduled for Sept. 16 in Thailand.

The Tamil Tigers, who are on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations, had demanded that the ban against them be lifted, saying they would not come to the negotiating table as an outlawed group. The U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, E. Ashley Wills, has said Washington will not lift its ban anytime soon.

Calls to lift the ban on the rebel group had been on the rise since Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed office after his alliance won Dec. 5 elections. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is elected separately, has demanded that the ban stay in place until talks show solid progress. Kumaratunga's stance has put her at odds with Wickremesinghe, and the rivalry has threatened to mar the peace process.

Earlier this week, Buddhist monks and opposition Marxist party supporters took to the streets protesting plans to lift the ban.

The rebels have been fighting for a homeland, claiming that the country's 3.2 million Tamils, who are mostly Hindus, suffer discrimination by the 14 million mainly Buddhist Sinhalese. More than 64,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

The rebel group was banned after an attack on a Buddhist shrine in 1998 that killed 26 people and outraged the Sinhalese majority.

The bloodshed ended after the government and the rebels signed a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire agreement Feb. 22.

Since then, both sides have implemented several confidence-building measures--under the watchful eyes of Scandinavian monitors.

This year, the government lifted 7-year-old economic sanctions on areas held by the rebels and allowed trucks to head to the northern jungles, carrying goods ranging from sugar to fertilizers.

It also reopened a highway linking rebel-held areas with the rest of the island and allowed sea passage to rebels traveling from north to east.

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