Sri Lanka Freeing 1,700 Tamil Rebel Prisoners

Associated Press

The government Thursday ordered 1,700 Tamil rebel prisoners released under an India-brokered peace accord, and Sri Lanka's main opposition leader criticized the pact as a betrayal of her people.

The accord, aimed at ending the country's four-year-old civil war, threatens the island nation's independence because it brought with it heavily armed Indian peacekeeping troops, said Sirimavo Bandaranaike, leader of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party.

"President (Junius R.) Jayewardene has betrayed the country by signing the accord without the consent of the people," she said in an interview. "Indians have achieved much more than they ever dreamt of achieving."

Under the pact signed last week, Tamil rebels who had fought for an independent homeland in a war that claimed more than 6,000 lives have begun surrendering arms and the Sri Lankan army is returning to barracks.

The plan also calls for creation of a unified, semiautonomous regional government in the north and east, where most Tamils live.

India, in agreement with Jayewardene's government, has moved 4,000 soldiers to Sri Lanka to oversee the cease-fire and will also send observers to upcoming elections in Tamil areas.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Sepala Attygalle signed an amnesty declaration ordering that 1,700 Tamil prisoners being held without trial in southern Sri Lanka be freed in observance of the peace accord.

A Defense Ministry official said the releases would begin within the next day or two. Officials say there are 3,000 Tamil prisoners in military camps and jails throughout Sri Lanka. But independent sources put the figure at more than 5,000.

The Defense Ministry official said further amnesties will be delayed until the Tamils finish surrendering their weapons, a process that began Wednesday and has been delayed because rebels are turning over their weapons only to Indian troops, who have yet to reach all rebel strongholds.

"The major release of Tamil suspects will only take place when the government is satisfied that all arms have been surrendered," he said.

Bandaranaike, who was prime minister before Jayewardene took office in 1977, said she doubts that Indian troops will go home in a hurry.

"I cannot understand why the Indians have sent warships, cannon, tanks and artillery pieces with thousands of troops," she added. "Who is going to attack us? We have now become an Indian protectorate."

India has said the troops will stay as long as the Sri Lankan president wants them.

Bandaranaike said that if her party were to return to power, she would "renegotiate the (accord's) more dangerous clauses with India, that is if India is willing."

She was especially critical of Jayewardene's pledge to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that foreign countries would not be allowed to use Sri Lankan ports for military purposes that threaten Indian interests.

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