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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
Tamil Tiger chief 'wants peace'
LTTE commanders
Prabhakaran has built a formidable fighting force
The leader of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has said he is committed to peace.

The right conditions have not arisen... to abandon the policy of independent statehood

Velupillai Prabhakaran
But in his first address to the media for 12 years, he insisted the government must lift its ban on his organisation before direct talks planned for next month.

Speaking near the rebel-held town of Kilinochchi, Mr Prabhakaran said the Tigers' campaign of suicide bombings was a thing of the past.

More than 200 such attacks have taken place in the past 15 years and high-profile victims have included the former Sri Lankan President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and the former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

Mr Prabhakaran also said he wanted constructive relations with India, a country "crucial to the success of the peace process".

His decision to speak about the peace process has been generating optimism that an end to a conflict that has killed more than 65,000 people might be in sight.

It comes in the wake of the ceasefire agreed between the Tamil Tigers and government forces in late December.

Key issue sidestepped

One of the key issues in the peace talks is whether the Tigers will be seeking a separate Tamil state or greater autonomy within Sri Lanka.

Velupillai Prabhakaran
His first appearance in more than a decade

A BBC correspondent at the news conference said Mr Prabhakaran sidestepped the question, saying that the rebels would respond to what offers the government put forward.

"The right conditions have not arisen... to abandon the policy of independent statehood," the rebel leader said.

Mr Prabhakaran said the government had to recognise three things:

  • The Tamil minority's right to a homeland in the north and east of the island
  • Self-determination for Tamils
  • Accepting the Tamils as a nation

"Once these are accepted or a solution recognizing these core issues are put forward and are acceptable to the Tamil people, then we will consider" ending the fight for a separate state, he said.

Tight security

Mr Prabhakaran has spent much of the last 20 years avoiding assassination attempts, and the rebels were taking no chances with his security ahead of Wednesday's press conference.

The hundreds of journalists who arrived to cover the event were taken to a remote jungle area and carefully searched.

Aftermath of Tiger bomb in Colombo
Critics of the government are wary of the speed of the peace process

Plans for live coverage of the news conference were scrapped because of security concerns.

"We are afraid of a repeat of what happened to Ahmad Shah Masood," one rebel told Reuters, referring to the assassination of the Afghan anti-Taleban leader by attackers posing as journalists.

Until now it has been the leader of the political wing of the Tamil Tigers, Mr Tamilselvan, who has been the public face of an organisation.

But Mr Prabhakaran's appearance in person comes as the Tigers endeavour to transform their image from a militaristic outfit into something like a civil administration.

The Tamil Tiger leader appeared in front of journalists on Wednesday dressed in a safari suit rather than his customary military uniform.

It is a dramatic turnaround for the rebel chief, who formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) 30 years ago, building the movement into a highly efficient fighting force.

The BBC's Adam Mynott
"More than 60,000 people have been killed in the struggle"
The BBC's Martin Plaut
"The man and the movement seldom meet the media"
See also:

08 Apr 02 | South Asia
Key Sri Lanka road opens
29 Mar 02 | South Asia
Direct talks in Sri Lankan conflict
22 Feb 02 | South Asia
Ceasefire signed in Sri Lanka
09 Apr 02 | South Asia
The enigma of Prabhakaran
09 Apr 02 | South Asia
Tamil rebel leader ends isolation
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