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Prabhakaran shuns separatist path

Kilinochchi (Sri Lanka), Nov. 27 (Reuters): The leader of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers made the clearest statement yet that the rebels had given up their demand for a separate state, saying today he was willing to settle for regional autonomy.

But in his annual speech to mark Heroes’ Day, honouring rebels killed in the 19-year conflict, guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran also warned the group would not renounce violence yet despite the start of peace talks.

“If our demand for regional self-rule, based on the right to internal self-determination, is rejected, we have no alternative than to secede and form an independent state,” he said in an 18-minute speech that brought the north and east of the country to a standstill.

The Tigers have been fighting since 1984 for a separate state for minority Tamils, who they say are discriminated against by the island’s majority Sinhalese. An estimated 64,000 have been killed in the conflict, including nearly 18,000 rebels.

It was Prabhakaran’s first public statement since the start of Norwegian-brokered peace talks earlier this year.

The speech was recorded prior to a conference held in Oslo on Monday to drum up aid and support for the peace bid, where the rebels dismissed a call from US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage to renounce violence. Top rebel negotiator Anton Balasingham rejected Armitage’s call, but Prabhakaran acknowledged the international pressure the Tigers were facing.

“We can’t ignore the realities of today’s world. We have to realise this and adjust our path to freedom.”

Balasingham ended a first round of face-to-face talks in September saying the rebels would settle for regional self-rule, but it was the first time Prabhakaran has made such a concession. “It is our deepest desire that the current peace talks, facilitated by Norway, should succeed and all the communities living in the island should coexist in harmony,” the reclusive guerrilla leader said.

“If a reasonable settlement to the Tamil national question could be realised by peaceful means, we will make every endeavour, with honesty and sincerity, to pursue that path.”

He gave no time frame for the completion of the talks, a third round of which will be held in Oslo next week.

Sri Lanka’s President called on Tamil Tiger rebels today to renounce violence and lay down arms, echoing a US appeal.

“It would be a very important confidence-building measure and a step in the right direction if the decommissioning of weapons was to be on the agenda,” presidential spokesman Harim Peiris said.

“Disarming needs to be preceded by a renunciation of violence and terrorism.”

The position of President Chandrika Kumaratunga — who is elected separately and belongs to a rival party — remains a question in the process.

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