5 Apr 2002
By Scott McDonald
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels reached out to the country's Muslim minority on Friday, apologising for expelling them from the north and promising talks to heal the rift.
The olive branch comes after the island's Muslim community pressed for a role in a peace bid between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists and demanded an end to what it says is harassment by the rebels.
"Let us forget and forgive the mistakes made in the past. Tamil Eelam (nation) is also the homeland of the Muslims and we have to live in harmony," LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham was quoted as saying by the pro-rebel website (www.tamilnet.com).
One of the key hurdles in settling the nearly two-decade-old conflict has been the status of the Muslims, of whom tens of thousands were kicked out of Jaffna peninsula more than 10 years ago by the Tigers.
They were given just a few days to quit villages they had lived in for decades. The rebels have also been blamed for gunning down hundreds of Muslims at prayers in the east during the 1980s.
"We do recognise the unique cultural identity of the Muslim community," said Balasingham, who added that he and LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran planned to meet Muslim leaders soon.
"Linguistically, economically and territorially the Muslims and Tamils are inextricably inter-related and therefore they have to co-exist as brothers in the northeast," he said.
"There are a lot of misapprehensions amongst the Islamic community with regard the LTTE's political strategy," Balasingham said.
Muslims make up about eight percent of Sri Lanka's population and most live in the north and east where the rebels want to carve out a separate state for the much larger Tamil minority.
The website called the expulsion from Jaffna "a political blunder" and said Prabhakaran would discuss the grievances of the Muslims.
"Mr Prabhakaran is willing to discuss all issues affecting the Muslim population and prepared to take immediate action to resolve them," Balasingham said.
The rebels have signed a Norwegian-brokered truce with the government controlled by the majority Sinhalese, bringing accusations from Muslim leaders that their community has been left out of the peace process.
The Muslims have also accused the rebels of extortion, abductions and other violations. The guerrillas deny the charges.