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Tamil Tiger chief sentenced in absentia to 200 years

The leader of the Tamil Tiger rebels was sentenced by a Sri Lankan court to 200 years in prison yesterday, while his negotiators held peace talks with government representatives on how to end the island's 19-year ethnic conflict.

Vellupillai Prabhakaran, in hiding in rebel-controlled territory, was convicted in absentia of conspiracy in a 1996 truck bombing that killed 91 people and injured 300.

G L Peiris, the government's chief negotiator, said the sentencing was unlikely to have an effect on the Norway-brokered talks that went into their second round at a resort in Thailand. Anton Balasingham, the chief negotiator for the rebels, would not comment.

The first round of talks in September, also in Thailand, achieved a breakthrough with Mr Balasingham's announcement that the Tigers would settle for autonomy and self-governance, and were willing to drop their demand for an independent homeland. The government, which wants the country united, is willing to consider granting more local self-government, but would have to ask for a national referendum to change the constitution.

Sri Lankan police are unlikely to be able to arrest Prabhakaran, who travels frequently between well-fortified camps in the northern jungles and is guarded by a unit called the Black Tigers. Until a ceasefire ended fighting in February, Sri Lankan security forces had made several attempts to capture or kill Prabhakaran.

The second round of talksis intended to set up a task force for the reconstruction of areas ravaged by the war and forge a joint appeal for foreign aid before a conference of donors on 25 November.