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Sri Lanka, Rebels Swap POWs

September 29, 2002|From Reuters

OMANTHAI, Sri Lanka — The Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels swapped prisoners of war Saturday in the latest move to push ahead a peace process after 19 years of war.

The exchange in a dusty no man's land in northern Sri Lanka happened amid unprecedented scenes of friendliness between top military leaders from both sides, who mingled with the prisoners to say their goodbyes. Seven soldiers were exchanged for 11 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels. Those freed looked healthy and were smiling.

Sri Lanka's top military officer, army chief Gen. Lionel Balagalle, sat casually next to the Tamil Tigers' northern commander Theepan, an encounter unimaginable several months ago.

"It is yet another significant milestone to a negotiated settlement of what was at one time considered an intractable conflict," said Austin Fernando, an official in the Defense Ministry.

The swap came less than two weeks after the two sides met in Thailand.

The rebel prisoners were given gift packs that included chocolate, crackers, fruit and a card that read "With the compliments" of Balagalle, the army chief.

"I kept going by the hope I would see my family again," said navy Capt. Ajith Boyagoda, who was captured by the rebels in a battle eight years ago.

Freed rebel Kennedy, 32, who like many guerrillas uses only one name, said, "I am not sure what the future holds, but I'm happy to go back home." He was captured in a 1994 attack on the Palali military airfield on the Jaffna peninsula.

The Tamil rebels now say they have no more prisoners of war. The government says it has rebel detainees who are not considered prisoners of war.

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