Thursday, December 27, 2007

'Lay down arms' before talks - President to Tamil Tigers

MATARA, Sri Lanka (AFP) - Sri Lanka's president used a tsunami mourning ceremony to repeat a vow to crush Tamil rebels before conducting peace talks to end Asia's longest-running ethnic conflict.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, addressing a public rally in this southern heartland of the majority Sinhalese, said the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) may not resume peace talks without first being militarily defeated.

"We are for a political settlement. But there is no point in talking about a political settlement without first defeating terrorism," the president said during a ceremony marking the third anniversary of the Asian tsunami.

The tsunami claimed an estimated 31,000 lives in Sri Lanka, where over 60,000 people have been killed in the LTTE's demand for a separate state for minority Tamils since 1972.

"The LTTE is not interested in negotiations. They must be made to realise that problems cannot be solved through the barrel of a gun," he said, adding that the Tigers must be forced to lay down arms.

He said security forces had already scored major victories against the guerrillas in the past year and hoped to build on them.

"Like we overcame the tsunami tragedy, we will face the threat of terrorism and overcome it soon," he said at the tightly guarded Sanath Jayasuriya grounds in this coastal town 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Colombo.

Rajapakse's comments came as Sri Lanka's navy said Wednesday that at least 40 rebels were killed in a sea clash with suspected Tamil Tiger vessels off the island's northern coast of Jaffna.

The military did not give its own casualty figures but said one naval craft was damaged during the explosion when two rebel boats were destroyed.

However, the rebels claimed they had sunk a navy fast attack craft and damaged two naval boats during the sea battle, the pro-rebel Tamilnet.com web site reported.

The president, who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, said the military wrested control over the eastern province from the Tigers in July after heavy fighting and there would be no let up in the military drive.

Rajapakse's brother Gotabhaya, who is the country's defence secretary, had earlier announced that security forces will move to dismantle the mini state of the Tigers in the north of the island.

Heavy fighting in the north of the island has claimed a high death toll among combatants since a Norwegian-arranged truce began to unravel since December 2005, according to both sides.

"We have recorded unprecedented military gains and they, no doubt, will pave the way for a political solution," Rajapakse said.

"There is no point in talking about a political solution without militarily crushing terrorism."

Rajapakse observed two minutes of silence at 9:25 am local time when the first giant waves lashed the coastline in a disaster that also displaced a million people and also followed three school bands across a six-lane bridge, the widest in the country, that was damaged during the tsunami.

The wall of water created by the massive earthquake off Indonesia on December 26, 2004, killed about 220,000 people in a dozen countries on the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka's post-tsunami reconstruction work has been dogged by graft and renewed fighting between Tamil rebels and troops.

Foreign aid pledges for rebuilding topped 3.2 billion dollars, but Sri Lanka says it has received only 1.2 billion dollars.

And out of that, 634 million dollars -- less than 20 percent of the original amount pledged -- had been spent by the end of November, according to Transparency International, an international watchdog on corruption.

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