Deal may allow Tiger leader exile escape

The Sri Lankan government is attempting to broker a deal with the Tamil Tiger rebels that could see their veteran leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, allowed to lay down his arms and escape into exile in the hope of ending the island’s bitter conflict.

In what might represent an attempt to seize on possible divisions within the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), The Independent has learnt that the government has put out “feelers” to the LTTE to see whether such a deal would be possible.

The arrangement could also see the remaining fighters, who are trapped along with 150,000 civilians in the north of the country, “rehabilitated”.

Such an arrangement would be highly controversial, both in Sri Lanka and internationally, but some within the government believe it would be a price worth paying to end the conflict.

“If there was an absolute guarantee … that he will not dabble in terrorism or politics – that is an Idi Amin situation, then it might work,” said one informed source in Colombo, referring to the former Ugandan dictator who in 1979 went into exile until his death.

Ironically, news of the initiative came as a two-day ceasefire ended and fighting reportedly resumed. A pro-rebel website claimed that Sri Lankan forces attacked LTTE positions with artillery and heavy machine guns although a military spokesman denied launching a new attack.

Last night, amid continued protests by UK Tamils in London’s Parliament Square, Foreign Secretary David Miliband called on the Sri Lanka government to announce a new ceasefire, adding that both sides must “abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law”.

For decades, Velupillai Prabhakaran has led the LTTE in an often brutal fight to secure a Tamil homeland. The war has left at least 70,000 people dead. Mr Prabhakaran once told reporters that he had instructed his fighters to kill him if he ever did anything to betray the cause. But at least some within the Sri Lankan government believe such a deal might be a way to bring an end to the conflict which is endangering many thousands of civilians trapped in the supposed “no-fire zone”.

One possible location mentioned for the rebel leader’s exile is Thailand, where, in the south of the country, the LTTE is said to have strong support.

It is far from clear whether Mr Prabhakaran would agree to go into exile. The man who founded the LTTE more than 30 years ago might prefer to make a stand in the no-fire zone, where the government has said it believes he and between 600 and 1,000 fighters remain.