Rebel leader warns Sri Lanka's government: Fix Tamil issues or face intensified struggle

The top Tamil Tiger leader has warned he will intensify the rebels' struggle for an independent homeland next year if Sri Lanka's new government doesn't address the ethnic minority's grievances.

Velupillai Prabhakaran did not set an exact deadline in his speech Sunday, but said that President Mahinda Rajapakse must lay out a plan that satisfies the political aspirations of the country's 3.2 million Tamils, who seek a homeland in the northeast.

"If the new government rejects our urgent appeal, we will, next year, in solidarity with our people, intensify our struggle for self-determination, our struggle for national liberation to establish self-government in our homeland," he said.

There was no immediate government reaction to Prabhakaran's comment, but Sri Lanka's top military general said troops were ready to defend the country.

"We are always committed to the cease-fire but if they withdraw and attack us we are not going to just sit and watch. We are going to retaliate," army commander Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda told The Associated Press.

"The army is in a strong position," he said.

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

Two days earlier, Rajapakse rejected rebel demands for a homeland 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 said the patience of his people was running out.

"Our people have lost patience, hope and reached the brink of utter frustration. They are not prepared to be tolerant any longer," he said.

The rebels say ethnic Tamils face discrimination from Sri Lanka's 14 million Sinhalese, who live mostly in the south and central parts of the tropical island.

On Sunday, Sri Lankan security forces were seen erecting barbed wire fences and cutting grass blocking the view from their bunkers in eastern Sri Lanka.

Guerrillas armed with rocket launchers and submachine guns patrolled near military positions in the region.

Most of the east is under government control, but the rebels have more than two dozen camps in the region. In the north, the rebels have widespread control.

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 Tamil-majority areas. The uneasy cease-fire continues despite frequent violence, AP reported. V.A.

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