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Goal is homeland, autonomy, Sri Lanka rebels say


BANGKOK, Thailand - Sri Lankan rebels backed away from their demand for a separate state yesterday, saying their long and bloody civil war was aimed at creating a homeland within the nation for the Tamil minority.

Speaking at the close of a three-day meeting in Thailand with Sri Lankan government officials, the chief Tamil negotiator, Anton Balasingham, said at a news conference, "The LTTE doesn't operate with the concept of a separate state."

He was referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the rebel group whose war against the government has cost more than 60,000 lives over the past 19 years.

"We operate with the concept of a homeland and self-determination," he said. "Homeland doesn't mean a separate state; it means an area where Tamils and Muslims live. Saying that the LTTE is fighting for independence has no relevance."

His words acknowledged the role that Muslims also play in the Tamil-dominated areas. He said the form of a potential autonomy still needs to be worked out in talks.

The government has in the past ruled out a separate state but has said it was willing to discuss greater autonomy for the Tamil minority in areas where they dominate the population.

The meeting in Sattahip involved the first direct talks between the rebels and the government in seven years. It produced an agreement to work together on swapping prisoners of war and resettling some of the 1.6 million people who have been displaced in one of Asia's longest-running conflicts.

A joint communique urged international donors to provide immediate funds for relief work, particularly mine-clearing, as the most urgent and important next step to peace.

The Norwegian government, which has been brokering a reconciliation, said they would meet again in Thailand from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3. More talks were scheduled for early December and early January.

A cease-fire negotiated with Norwegian help has largely held since February, producing the longest period of peace since the conflict began in 1983.

The rebels have been fighting to carve out a separate nation in the north and east of Sri Lanka, where they form a majority. But in the largely Sinhalese and Buddhist nation of 19 million people, the 3.2 million Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, are a small minority. Muslims make up another influential minority, and there is also a smaller population of Christians.

A round of negotiations in 1995 had failed.

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