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Sri lanka { September 18 2002 }

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September 18, 2002
Sri Lankan Rebels Drop Demand for Separate State

BANGKOK, Thailand, Sept. 18 — Sri Lankan Tamil separatist rebels backed away today from their demand for a separate state, saying their long and bloody civil war was aimed at creating a "homeland" within the nation for the Tamil minority.

Speaking at the close of a three-day meeting with Sri Lankan government officials, the chief Tamil negotiator, Anton Balasingham, said at a news conference, "The L. T. T. E. doesn't operate with the concept of a separate state."

He was referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a rebel group whose separatist war with the Sri Lankan government has cost more than 60,000 lives over the past 19 years.

"We operate with the concept of a homeland and self-determination," he said. "Homeland doesn't mean a separate state; it means an area where Tamils and Muslims live. Saying that the L.T.T.E. is fighting for independence has no relevance."

The government has in the past ruled out the possibility of creating a separate state but has said it was willing to discuss greater autonomy for the Tamil minority in areas where they dominate the population.

The meeting in Sattahip, 160 miles southeast of Bangkok, involved the first direct talks between the rebels and the government in seven years. It produced an agreement to work together on swapping prisoners of war and resettling some of the 1.6 million people who have been displaced in one of Asia's longest-running conflicts.

A joint communiqué urged international donors to provide immediate funds for relief work, particularly mine-clearing, as the most urgent and important next step to peace.

The Norwegian government, which has been brokering a rapprochement between the two sides, said they would meet again in Thailand from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3. More talks were scheduled for early December and early January.

A cease-fire negotiated with Norwegian help has largely held since since February, producing the longest period of peace since the conflict began in 1983.

The Tamil rebels have been fighting to carve out a separate nation in the north and east of Sri Lanka, where they form a majority. The 3.2 million Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, are a small minority in the largely Sinhalese and Buddhist nation of 19 million people. Muslims make up another influential minority and there is also a smaller population of Christians.

The last round of negotiations, in 1995, collapsed when the government accused the Tamil Tigers of refusing to engage on substantive issues.

This time the government's chief negotiator, G. L. Peiris, struck an optimistic note from the start, when he said, "Together we repudiate today a legacy of rancor and hatred, which has torn asunder the fabric of our nation for decades."

He voiced satisfaction as the talks concluded today, saying, "The progress is certainly substantial, and I would say in excess of the expectations we had for the first round of talks. We have addressed matters of substance. We have made tangible progress."

Mr. Balasingham, however, said that this progress did not yet mean that the rebels would lay down their arms or disband their fighting force.

"The question of decomissioning or disarming will not arrive until we reach a permanent solution meeting the aspirations of Tamil people," he said.

Difficult issues remain to be discussed, particularly involving the allocation of political power and control of the police. Analysts said an outright peace agreement could still be years away.

The Tamil rebels have complained of discrimination in jobs and education in a nation where they were a favored group under British colonial rule but became marginalized after independence.

During the talks, the two sides agreed that economic development in the areas ravaged by the conflict was a key to future peace and stability.

The three ministers in the Sri Lankan delegation are now scheduled to head for Washington to join Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is seeking financial help in rebuilding the nation.

Mr. Balasingham said earlier that the Tamil Tigers should be embraced as "equal partners" in economic revival, particularly given their intimate knowledge of the war-torn areas they have controlled for much of the past two decades.

He added: "If the international community has been supporting the peace process, it is the obligation of the international community to help us so that the peace process can be advanced further."

Mr. Peiris said reconstruction could begin even before a formal peace agreement is struck.

"It is quite possible to start a whole variety of programs," he said.

"There is no antagonism. On the contrary, there is partnership. So that's a big step forward and I am sure that will inspire confidence in the international community."

Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen of Norway, a key mediator in the talks, said, "It is in our common interest to provide immediate funding to practical peace building on the ground."

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