Tigers give backing to democracy across Sri Lanka

After nearly two decades of civil war in which 64,000 people have died, Sri Lanka's government and the Tamil Tigers have achieved a startling breakthrough in their efforts to end the conflict that has torn apart the tropical island.

At the end of a second round of peace talks in Thailand, the Tigers announced yesterday that they wanted to participate in democracy, and would allow other political parties to operate in the areas under their control in the north and east. Their "ultimate aim was ... to enter the political mainstream, which is democratic", said their chief negotiator Anton Balasingham.

He said: "Both parties are sincerely and seriously committed to peace and we'll make every endeavour to see a final and permanent settlement is reached without much delay."

He also said the Tigers had recruited children as fighters – something which the UN and human rights groups have long accused it of, but which the guerrilla organisation has never before admitted in public. "They have been handed over to their parents. There are no child soldiers in the north-east now," he said.

The breakthrough raised hopes that a settlement may now be possible after a brutal and economically crippling war that began in 1983 and rendered a million people homeless.

The Tigers – branded as "terrorists" by at least five countries, including Britain and America – have been fighting for the Tamil minority, 18 per cent of the 19 million population, who complain of widespread discrimination by the Sinhalese majority. In September they dropped their demand for an independent state, saying they would settle for regional autonomy. Their tactics have included assassinations, suicide attacks, and bombings.

The success came despite a Sri Lankan court ruling, just before the talks began, that slapped a 200-year jail sentence in absentia on the man who founded the Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The conviction – for a suicide bombing in 1996 that killed about 80 people – was described by the Tigers' negotiator as "utterly ridiculous".

Vidar Helgesen, the deputy foreign minister of Norway – which is acting as mediator – said that the prospects for peace looked good. Guardedly optimistic noises came from the government of Sri Lanka, which has spent vast amounts in a failed attempt to subdue the guerrillas by military force.

Sri Lanka's chief negotiator, G L Peiris, declared that the Tigers were now "engaged in a transformation to a political organisation". The Sri Lankan government lifted its ban on them in September, before the talks began. "Whatever noises are made at the fringes, we will definitely stay our course because we know that mainstream public opinion is behind us," Mr Peiris said.

In an illustration of the changed atmosphere, both Mr Peiris and Mr Balasingham suggested the rebel negotiator was likely to meet Sri Lanka's Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, at a donor nations conference in Norway on 25 November.