Sri Lankan rebels react angrily to hardline president's victory

Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels reacted angrily Sunday to the election of hardline President Mahinda Rajapakse, saying it showed that the Sinhalese majority had no understanding of minority Tamils' aspirations for a homeland.

Rajapakse, after assuming office Saturday, said he would never let Sri Lanka be divided, but pledged he would not return the country to war.

The rebels have demanded wide autonomy in the country's northeast, where most of Sri Lanka's 3.2 million ethnic Tamils live, saying they can only prosper away from the domination of the Sinhalese majority.

"The pillars of the Tamil demand _ namely, Tamil homeland, Tamil nation, and Tamil self-determination _ will never be accepted by them," the rebels said Sunday on their official Web site, referring to Rajapakse and his supporters.

"There is no space to talk of a federal solution," the rebels said.

Rajapakse was able to narrowly defeat opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who favored granting the rebels more autonomy, after an election boycott by the rebels prevented thousands of ethnic Tamils from casting ballots.

Rajapakse sought the support of hardline Sinhalese Buddhist and Marxist groups by promising to review the Norwegian-brokered 2002 cease-fire between the government and rebels. The truce has grown increasingly fragile in recent months.

The rebels fought since 1983 for a Tamil homeland in the northeast, where they already run a de facto state. The war claimed 65,000 lives.

Most of Sri Lanka's 14 million Sinhalese are Buddhists who live in the island's south and center.

"Sinhala people, Sinhala institutions and Sinhala political processes immersed in the Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic theories are not going to understand the just aspirations of the Tamil people," the rebel statement said.

Rajapakse, in a speech after taking the oath of office Saturday, said he wanted an honorable peace.

"War is not my method," he said. "I will initiate a new round of talks with all those who have a stake in the solution of the national question."

But he said dividing the country is not the answer.

"During the presidential election, the overwhelming majority of people said that the country should not be divided," Rajapakse said. "It is this aspiration that would be the basis of my policy for achieving peace."

He also has pledged not to allow direct foreign tsunami aid to the insurgents, who have repeatedly demanded access to some of the US$2 billion (Ђ1.7 billion) promised to Sri Lanka so they can run their own relief effort.

The Dec. 26 tsunami killed at least 31,000 people in Sri Lanka, and swept away the homes or livelihoods of 1 million others.

Observers say Rajapakse faces a giant task trying to reunite the country after winning the election with only 50.29 percent of the vote. Wickremesinghe, who favored granting concessions to the rebels, received 48.38 percent.

"The position he had taken during the election campaign will make it difficult for him to reverse the decline" in relations between the government and the rebels, said political analyst Jehan Perera.

On Sunday, Rajapakse _ a devout Buddhist _ visited the Temple of Tooth in the Buddhist holy city of Kandy, said his spokesman, Chandrapala Liyanage.

The lakeside shrine, damaged in a 1998 rebel bombing, houses what some Buddhist believe is one of the Buddha's teeth, AP reported. V.A.

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