Tamil rebels brandish weapons

Tamil Tiger guerrillas armed with rocket launchers and submachine guns patrolled near military positions in eastern Sri Lanka on Sunday, hours before their leader was expected to outline a harder stance against the government on peace talks to end the island's two-decade civil war.

Velupillai Prabhakaran was set to deliver his annual speech on the rebels' "Heroes' Day" to pay homage to guerrillas killed while fighting government troops.

This year's speech comes two days after Sri Lanka's new president, Mahinda Rajapakse, rejected rebel aspirations for an autonomous homeland for ethnic minority Tamils in the northeast and promised to overhaul a 2002 cease-fire to curb violence and child recruitment by the Tigers.

The rebels have been accused of assassinating political rivals and recruiting child soldiers despite the truce. Prabhakaran may announce that Rajapakse "has effectively ended the peace process by refusing to go beyond a 'unitary' state," political analyst Jehan Perera said Saturday.

Kanagalingam Sivajilingam of the Tamil National Alliance, a rebel-backed political party, said Prabhakaran's message "may be that there is no possibility of a resumption of (peace) talks."

On Sunday, Sri Lankan security forces were seen erecting barbed wire fences and cutting grass blocking the view from their bunkers in the eastern town of Batticaloa. Meanwhile, an Associated Press reporter who visited rebel-held areas on the outskirts of the town saw armed guerrillas patrolling areas close to Sri Lankan military positions.

Most of the east are under government control, but the rebels have more than a two dozen camps in the region. The rebels say 17,903 of their members have died while fighting government forces for a separate Tamil state. More than 65,000 people, including rebels, military personnel and civilians were killed in the conflict before the cease-fire.

Peace talks following the truce broke down in April 2003 over rebel demands for greater autonomy in the Tamil-majority northeast. The uneasy cease-fire continues despite frequent violence, AP reports.

A. A.

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