Terrorist Leader Emerges from Sri Lankan Jungle, Looking For Deal

By T.C. Malhotra | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - The international focus on terrorism in the post-Sept. 11 era has prompted one of the world's most elusive terrorists to offer to negotiate.

Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the 47-year-old founder of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has made his first public appearance in 15 years.

The group, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, has waged a bloody campaign since the early 1980s for a separate state for minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. More than 60,000 lives have been lost.

Exchanging his military fatigues for a sober gray safari-suit, Prabhakaran address a press conference about a peace process being pursued by the LTTE and Sri Lankan government.

Prabhakaran is wanted in connection with the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, as well as the deaths of scores of senior Sri Lankan leaders, including a president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, in 1993.

Although he ruled out giving up armed struggle for an independent Tamil state, Prabhakaran sought the help of India in the negotiations.

He urged India to lift an 11-year old ban on the organization, and described Gandhi's 1991 assassination, which precipitated the ban, as "tragic."

"We want close relations with India. We reiterate that we want the Indian government to lift the ban," he told media representatives assembled at a jungle base in Sri Lanka's northern Jaffna peninsula.

The event was marked by secrecy, with the organizers changing the venue and time at least three times Wednesday. Live telecast of the proceedings and the use of satellite phones were banned.

Prabhakaran talked about forthcoming peace talks with government - to be held in Thailand - and said the LTTE wanted to discuss the establishment of an interim administration for northern parts of Sri Lanka.

He said he would not himself attend the talks but would direct the negotiations.

"India's participation in the peace process is crucial because India is a regional super-power and we do not want to isolate India in this process."

He sought to justify the decision to launch a violent campaign by saying the Sri Lankan military had "crushed" all attempts at non-violent struggle.

"It is because of the historic conditions that we were compelled to take up arms."

A senior Indian government official ruled out the possibility of lifting the ban on the Tamil Tigers, and said Prabhakaran should be extradited to India.

India's Supreme Court has named Prabhakaran as prime accused in the Gandhi killing and New Delhi cannot take a lenient view in this matter, he said.

Although a formal government response was yet to come, the official said India did not wish to mediate between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

During the late 1980s India did become involved in the Sri Lankan crisis, and Indian peacekeepers ended up fighting a bloody battle against the Tamil rebels. Gandhi's assassination had been in retaliation for that development.

India's opposition Congress party - which is led by Gandhi's widow, Sonia - called on the Indian government to initiate steps to extradite Prabhakaran for his role in the murder.

It accused the government of making no effort up to now to have the terrorist leader extradited.

"It's a designated terrorist organization and banned in India, while Prabhakaran is a proclaimed offender responsible for the assassination of the former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi," Congress said in a statement.

Indian analysts meanwhile, said Prabhakaran's return to the path of negotiation followed last September's attacks on the U.S.

With the U.S. and other countries taking a firm line against terrorism, funding for violent struggles has come under close scrutiny.

The LTTE campaign has been funded by half a million Tamils living in North America, Europe and Asia.

With the international crackdown on terrorism the funds have dried up, pointed out R. Venkataraman, a close observer of LTTE.

The LTTE is designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department. Early last year Britain also named it as a terrorist group under new anti-terror legislation.

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