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200-yr jail for Prabhakaran
- Court ruling coincides with start of talks in Thailand

Colombo, Oct. 31 (Reuters): A Sri Lankan court sentenced the reclusive leader of the LTTE to 200 years in jail today as the rebels sat down for peace talks with the government in Thailand to end two decades of war.

The Colombo High Court handed down the sentence after convicting Velupillai Prabhakaran and four others in absentia for their roles in the 1996 suicide bombing that blew up the island’s central bank, killing nearly 100 people.

“They should be taken into custody immediately,” High Court judge Sarath Ambeypitiya said. It was not known if the conviction would have any impact on the peace talks that started today, but it highlights the issue of blame the negotiators are expected to have to tackle at some point.

The talks run until Sunday and are expected to focus on putting a plan in place to win international aid to rebuild war-hit areas of the island, leaving thornier issues, including how to deal with alleged war crimes, until later.

The truck bomb blast in January 1996 destroyed the central bank building in the business centre of Colombo and a row of buildings facing it, some of which have still not been repaired.

The ruling will be an embarrassment for Prabhakaran, who has been trying to improve his image by shedding his military fatigues, meeting diplomats and even holding a jungle news conference.

But the conviction was a reminder that Prabhakaran is accused of turning the Tigers into one of the world’s most ferocious guerrilla forces known for trademark suicide attacks and vows its followers make to bite a cyanide pill to avoid capture alive.

It could also make it harder for people to meet the rebel leader who was convicted in absentia in India for masterminding the 1991 murder of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

“If anyone went to meet Prabhakaran, those who want to make the point that he is a fugitive from justice could make noise. There is a political fallout in that sense,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for Tamils, but signed a truce in February and held a first round of peace talks with the government last month.

About 64,000 people have died in the fighting.

Highlighting the goodwill that has been built up between the sides, government negotiators led by Cabinet minister G.L. Peiris and the rebel side headed by Anton Balasingham shared a section on the same plane to fly to Bangkok yesterday.

Balasingham said at the first round of talks that if Tiger demands for self-determination in an autonomous homeland were met the rebels would give up calls for a separate state.

But officials said the talks would stay away from political issues, and instead focus on a joint task force to oversee aid programmes, something that has to be established before a donor conference to fund rebuilding is held in Oslo on late November.

Problems with the truce will also be discussed over the next several days, with both sides adding military advisers to their negotiating teams after clashes in the ethnically mixed east left at least 10 dead in the worst violence since the ceasefire was signed.

The rebels have voiced concerns about the stability of their negotiating partner after government efforts to curb the extensive powers of the president, who has been critical of the peace process, failed.

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