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Sri Lankan rebels open to peace talks

[AP, Wednesday, 31 December 2008 07:55 No Comment]

ltte_b_nadesan_68978_200 Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger separatists are open to restarting peace talks with the government, despite the continuing military offensive aimed at crushing the group, a senior rebel official said.

 

The two sides have been fighting for more than 25 years over the rebels’ demands for an independent state for minority Tamils in the north and east of this Indian Ocean island nation.

 

A new military push deep into the rebel heartland in recent months has forced the Tamil Tigers to retreat from vast swaths of land they once controlled, and the government has said it expects to finish off the group in the coming months.

 

Rebel political chief Balasingham Nadesan told The Associated Press the rebels did not believe they were facing imminent defeat.

 

"We have made several strategic withdrawals in order to save the lives of our people and maintain the strength of our forces. When the time and place is conducive, we will regain the land we have lost," he said in an e-mail sent to the AP late Tuesday.

 

The two sides agreed to a truce in 2002 and held internationally brokered peace talks aimed at resolving the bloody conflict. The talks stalled, however, and violence erupted again three years ago. The government officially pulled out of the cease-fire in January.

 

Nadesan said the rebels had not abandoned hopes for new peace talks.

 

"We have always been ready for peace talks, but the Sri Lankan government has been always insisting on a military solution," he said.

 

The government said it would only consider new peace moves if the rebels agreed to disarm.

"For three decades we were trying to convince (rebel leader Velupillai) Prabhakaran and his terror group to come to some sort of reasonable arrangement, but they failed," Cabinet minister Keheliya Rambukwella said.

 

If the group refuses to lay down its weapons, "we will not move an inch from our position," he said.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 to create an independent homeland for the minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization by successive governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. The conflict has killed more than 70,000 people.

 

The latest government offensive has squeezed the rebels into an increasingly shrinking area in the northeast. Fighter jets have relentlessly pounded their strongholds and the military has closed in on the rebels’ administrative capital, Kilinochchi

 

Nadesan said the rebels remained confident they would not be driven out of their heartland, but implied that if they were, the conflict would continue anyway.

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