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In a Breakthrough, Rebels Agree to Accept Autonomy in Sri Lanka

Asia: Tamil Tigers' shift from independence demand comes after three days of talks.

September 19, 2002|From Reuters

SATTAHIP, Thailand — Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels said at the end of a landmark peace conference Wednesday that they would settle for autonomy rather than a separate state, the issue at the heart of two decades of war.

The switch in tone by the Tigers came after three days of Norwegian-sponsored talks here, where the rebels and the government expressed optimism that the latest discussions would succeed where four previous peace initiatives ended in bloodshed.

"We are now confident the peace process is going to advance and succeed," chief rebel negotiator Anton Balasingham told a news conference Wednesday. But he added that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam would fight for a separate state "as a last resort" for minority Tamils if their demands for self-determination and autonomy were not met.

In the past, the Tigers have been firm in their demands for self-determination while hedging on giving up their key demand for a separate homeland, or eelam. Balasingham said the Tigers were pushing for "substantial autonomy" but that eelam was not the ultimate goal.

The rebels want money to rebuild and the right to run their own affairs, but they have agreed for the first time to join the government in redevelopment of the battered north and east of the island.

"A stable foundation for peace has been established, and a cease-fire is holding for the last seven months," Balasingham said, referring to a truce that was signed in February.

But he said the Tigers, who took up arms in 1983 to fight for independence, would not lay down their weapons until a permanent peace was reached.

Government negotiator G.L. Peiris said the Tigers' dreams could be achieved without breaking up the country.

"They have stated it categorically on this occasion: A separate state is not what their aspirations are about," he said. "Their aspirations can be fulfilled within one country, if we set about it in the proper way."

The parties also said they will meet again at the end of October.

The Norwegian government, which is overseeing the talks, said the agreement by the two sides to work together in a task force for humanitarian and reconstruction activities was a breakthrough.

A joint operation would have been unthinkable a year ago, with the Tigers maintaining that they alone had the right to run aid projects in rebel areas.

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