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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 22:41 GMT 23:41 UK
Reclusive Tamil rebel leader faces public
Velupillai Prabhakaran
Prabhakaran (right) has a fearsome reputation
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By Adam Mynott
BBC South Asia correspondent

Three hundred plus journalists drove over bumpy roads, lined in places by minefields, for up to 12 hours, to get to the remote spot for the news conference near Kilinochchi in Tamil Tiger-held territory in northern Sri Lanka.

We are freedom fighters, not terrorists, seriously committed to peace

Velupillai Prabhakaran
Until minutes before it took place there was no word of exactly where this meeting was happening, but we were taken under armed guard to a recently built compound in the jungle for this once in a decade experience.

Reporters and cameramen were minutely searched before being allowed in.

The man of mystique, Velupillai Prabhakaran, appeared, flanked on all sides by soldiers, to tell the world he was serious in his desire for peace.

This man has a fearsome reputation - some say he is the architect and founder of the suicide bombers, a seemingly unlimited supply of young men and women prepared to die.

The so-called Black Tigers have killed more than 200 people, including such high profile figures as the former Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi.

'Freedom fighters'

Mr Prabhakaran strode into the news conference wearing not his army fatigues but a safari suit.

Former Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa
Premadasa was killed by an LTTE bomb in 1993

He denied that his was a terrorist organisation.

It has been proscribed by the governments of Sri Lanka, America, the United Kingdom and others.

"We are freedom fighters," he said, "not terrorists, seriously committed to peace".

"But," he said, "we called a unilateral ceasefire in December. That shows we're serious."

Mr Prabhakaran has been quoted recently as softening his demands for independence, pushing now for some form of autonomy for the Tamil-held region.

But at the news conference he said the Tamil people still want an independent homeland.

Peace hopes

The rebel leader was pressed repeatedly about the murder of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, but he said this was now old history. He wanted to look forward and he did not want to intrude on the legal battles of four people who have been convicted in India and their attempts to clear their names.

Tamil Tiger soldier guarding press conference
The press conference was held amid tight security

He said he was approaching the peace talks next month in Thailand with the Sri Lankan Government with a positive frame of mind.

First, he said, the government in Colombo must lift its ban on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). He also wants India to do the same.

There is little doubt Sri Lanka will lift the ban. With India, though, the outcome is less sure in the short-term.

The BBC's Martin Plaut
"The man and the movement seldom meet the media"
The BBC's Adam Mynott
"Pabhakaran committed his organisation to peaceful negotiations
See also:

10 Apr 02 | South Asia
Tamil Tiger chief 'wants peace'
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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