Tamil Tigers apologise for suicide bomber's murder of Rajiv Gandhi

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The Independent Online

Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels have unexpectedly apologised for the assassination of the former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. It was the first time the Tigers have directly admitted responsibility for the death of Gandhi, who was killed by a suicide bomber.

"I would say it is a great tragedy, a monumental historical tragedy which we deeply regret," the Tigers' chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, said in an interview with India's NDTV. "We call upon the government of India and people of India to be magnanimous, to put the past behind them."

The apology comes at a time when Sri Lanka is on the brink of a return to civil war between government forces and the Tamil Tigers. It also comes as India is actively engaging in Sri Lanka for the first time in many years.

Gandhi was killed by a female suicide bomber who rushed up to him, ostensibly to greet him, as he was campaigning for elections in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have been fighting for two decades for autonomy for Sri Lanka's Tamils, are believed to have targeted him in revenge for his ordering Indian troops to intervene in the Sri Lankan civil war.

His killing on Indian soil greatly added to the Tigers' reputation for fearsome effectiveness. It was a crushing blow to India, which almost completely withdrew from involvement in Sri Lanka.

The Indian government dismissed the Tigers' apology and said it would not forgive Gandhi's death. "This would be tantamount to endorsing the philosophy of terror, violence and political assassination," said the junior foreign minister, Anand Sharma.

The timing of the Tigers' apology, when the ceasefire in Sri Lanka appears to be collapsing, is interesting.

"India has been silent for the past 15 years and adopted a detached role," Mr Balasingham said. "Now there is the possibility of war emerging, so she can't keep quiet but she has to face challenges ... and orientate a new foreign policy towards her neighbour for which the relationship between the LTTE and India is crucial."

Sources in Delhi say India is focusing on Sri Lanka in a way it has not done since Gandhi's assassination - and that appears to have the Tigers concerned.

Recently banned as a "terrorist organisation" by the European Union, the LTTE has no international support. It may also be concerned about any possible move by India to block funds or arms supplies from reaching it.

It has emerged that India recently gave the Sri Lankan government its first direct military aid for six years, in the form of radar to help detect Tiger air attacks.