- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

From combined dispatches
OMANTHAI, Sri Lanka The Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels swapped prisoners-of-war yesterday in the latest move to push ahead a peace process that has already silenced the guns after 19 years of war.
The exchange in a dusty no-man's land in northern Sri Lanka happened amid unprecedented scenes of friendliness between top military leaders from both sides, who mingled with the prisoners to say their goodbyes.
Sri Lanka's top military officer, army chief Gen. Lionel Balagalle, sat casually next to Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) northern commander Theepan, an encounter unimaginable several months ago.
"It is yet another significant milestone to a negotiated settlement of what was at one time considered an intractable conflict," said Sri Lanka's Secretary of Defense Austin Fernando.
The swap ceremony, held under a plastic tent and attended by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, came less than two weeks after the two sides met for a first round of peace talks in Thailand.
The Tamil Tiger prisoners were given going-away gift packs that included chocolate, crackers and fruit with a card that read "With the compliments" of Gen. Balagalle.
Sri Lankan police stood next to "Tamil Eelam Police" the police the Tigers have in areas they control during the ceremony that saw 11 rebel soldiers exchanged for seven government military personnel.
The government released a total of 13 rebels, but two female fighters were handed over to their relatives through the Red Cross separately, said agency spokesman Sukumar Rockwood.
Those freed looked healthy and were smiling.
"I kept going by the hope I would see my family again," said navy Cmdr. Ajith Boyagoda, who was released after being captured by the rebels in a naval battle eight years ago. His 77-year-old mother hugged him, with tears rolling down her cheeks.
One of the released Tigers was a member of the feared "Black Tigers" suicide squad.
"I am not sure what the future holds but I'm happy to go back home," said 32-year old Kennedy, who like many guerrillas uses only one name. He was captured by government troops in 1994 during an attack on the northern Palaly air base.
Another two rebels were released in the east in the latest in a series of confidence-building measures, including opening roads and allowing greater movement of people, since a Norwegian-brokered truce was signed in February.
"We consider this occasion as one of the peace dividends and hope that similar gestures of good will would form the foundation of confidence building," said Suda Master, the deputy head of the LTTE's political wing.
None of the soldiers or police carried weapons, which are not allowed in the crossing-over area between the front lines of the two sides near Omanthai, 167 miles north of the capital Colombo.
The government personnel were later flown by helicopter to Colombo for a meeting with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The Tamil rebels say they have no more prisoners of war while the government says it has Tamil detainees held under terrorism charges, who are not considered prisoners of war.
Another round of talks is set for Thailand in late October to try to bring an end to the 19-year ethnic conflict that has claimed more than 64,000 lives.


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