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Sri Lanka PM focuses on ending civil war
Updated: 2005-08-30 09:22

Sri Lanka's prime minister, now a high-profile candidate in presidential elections to be held later this year, said Monday his top priority would be to end the civil war with Tamil Tiger rebels.

Mahinda Rajapakse, in an interview with The Associated Press, said he would even be willing to be the first Sri Lankan president to meet the rebels' secretive leader.

"I am willing to walk an extra mile to reach (the) goal of peace," he said.

The presidential elections, which must be held before Nov. 22, are coming at one of the most tense times in Sri Lanka since an 2002 cease-fire brought a halt to fighting between the government and the Tigers.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister and presidential candidate of the ruling coalition government Mahinda Rajapakse smiles during an interview with The Associated Press in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, Aug. 29, 2005.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister and presidential candidate of the ruling coalition government Mahinda Rajapakse smiles during an interview with The Associated Press in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, Aug. 29, 2005. [AP]
The peace process is stalled. A split in the Tigers in March 2004 ushered in months of killings between the main rebel group and a breakaway faction. And the Aug. 12 assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar blamed on the rebels led to the imposition of a state of emergency.

The Tigers have denied any role in the assassination and appealed for the emergency to be lifted, saying it poses a threat to the peace process.

Rajapakse, the candidate of the ruling People's Alliance, said nothing on how long the emergency should last, but stressed that he was committed to the peace process.

"I am not for war, I am totally against war," Rajapakse said during the interview at his fortified residence in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital.

The Tigers began fighting in 1983 for a separate homeland for minority Tamils, who are mainly Hindus and account for about 3.2 million of Sri Lanka's 19 million people, claiming discrimination by the largely Buddhist Sinhalese, who number about 14 million people and dominate the military and police.

The rebels waged a bloody campaign for nearly two decades. They were among the first modern groups to use suicide bombings, killing numerous officials, including late Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa two years later.

On the government side, human rights groups repeatedly accused the police and military of torturing suspected rebels during the war.

Nearly 65,000 people were killed in the war before a 2002 cease-fire largely stopped the fighting. But subsequent peace talks broke down over the rebels' demand for greater autonomy in the country's north and east, where the Tamils are concentrated.

The president's race will pit Rajapakse against opposition candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, who signed the 2002 cease-fire with the Tigers and started peace talks during his tenure as prime minister from 2001 to 2004.

Some leaders in Rajapakse's People's Alliance, including President Chandrika Kumaratunga, have taken a harder line against the rebels a policy that has wide support among the Sinhalese majority.

But Rajapakse is not considered as hard-line as Kumaratunga, and he insisted Monday "that all of us agree that the war must end forever."

Rajapakse set only one condition for the peace process: a time limit.

Since the peace process began in 2002, critics have accused the Tigers of dragging the process out so they could regroup and rearm.

But Rajapakse did not say how long a time limit he would ask for if elected.

Rajapakse has held different ministries under Kumaratunga, and was appointed prime minister after his return to power in the 2004 parliamentary election.

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