Protests greet Patten's bid to broker deal in Sri Lanka

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The Independent Online

Chris Patten, the EU's external affairs commissioner, was burned in effigy by angry demonstrators as he arrived in Sri Lanka yesterday tohelp restart peace negotiations between the government and Tamil Tigers guerrillas.

As Britain's last Governor of Hong Kong, Mr Patten was subjected to choice epithets such as "triple violator"and "whore for a thousand generations" by the Chinese government. Yesterday he was greeted by about 2,000 protesters of the majority Sinhalese community, who called him a "white tiger". The burning effigy was doused by police water cannon.

The demonstrators were angered by the fact that Mr Patten, who met President Chandrika Kumaratunga yesterday, is due to go north today to meet Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the reclusive leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), on what happens to be Mr Prabhakaran's birthday. The LTTE has carried out numerous suicide bombings and massacres of its own people in its 19-year war to create a homeland in the north of the island for the Tamil minority. It has been classed as terrorist by Britain, the US and India.

The Island newspaper said Mr Patten's talks with Mr Prabhakaran would legitimisehis leadership and be seen as a "great honour" for the 48-year-old guerrilla chieftain, who has a force of trusted cadres and suicide bombers known as the Black Tigers. Mr Patten is one of the most senior political figures to meet the LTTE leader, but insisted he would tell Mr Prabhakaran that his group had to give up violence.

"There is a difference between Kalashnikovs and the ballot-box, and we want it to be absolutely clear that they have stopped murdering people for political ends," said Mr Patten.

"We want to make it clear that they stand by the cease-fire agreement, that they are not trying to purchase arms, that they are not trying to get little kids trained as suicide bombers."

Although a cease-fire is holding, peace negotiations have divided the Sinhalese community. Mr Patten has arrived in the midst of a bitter struggle between President Kumaratunga and her Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, whom she accuses of making too many concessions to the Tigers.

Earlier this month she suspended parliament and took control of three leading ministries. But they are now negotiating throughintermediaries, to find a means of sharing power.