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Tamil Rebels Well-Equipped for War

June 7, 2000

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Separatist rebels say a corp of suicide bombers, known as the Black Tigers, are playing a vital role in their 17-year war of independence in Sri Lanka.

Although there was no claim of responsibility in Wednesday’s suicide bombing that killed a Cabinet minister and 20 others, the attack was similar to others carried out by the ultra-secret assassination squad.

``Black Tigers are the self protective armor of our race,″ Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, has said. ``They are the men of flame who can destroy the enemy’s armed strength.″

But a good portion of the suicide fighters have been women. They begin training at an early age, sometimes as young as 10 years old. Women often cut their hair like men and wear men’s clothes. Male suicide bombers sometimes dress as women.

The gender of the bomber is often not known immediately, as was the case Wednesday, when Industrial Development Minister C.V. Gooneratne was assassinated in Ratmalana, an industrial suburb of the capital, Colombo. The suicide bomber and 20 other people also were killed.

Last July, the Tigers admitted that they had lost 147 suicide fighters, most of them in attacks on army bases in the island’s northeast.

The war began in earnest in 1983, when a small band of Tamil guerrillas ambushed a troop patrol, killing 13 soldiers.

Sri Lanka’s army, government and education system is dominated by the majority Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhist. The Sinhalese comprise 76 percent of Sri Lanka’s 18.6 million people. The Tamils, mostly Hindu, had chafed for years under what they felt was discrimination.

That prompted widespread riots in which Sinhalese mobs killed at least 2,000 Tamils. The slaughter drove hundreds of Tamil youths to the rebel movement. Human rights groups and government officials say the Tigers continue to recruit children, often by force.

The first suicide bombing, in 1987, occurred when a rebel drove an explosives-laden truck into an army camp and killed nearly 40 soldiers.

In 1993, the Tigers were blamed for killing President Ranasinghe Premadasa at a May Day rally, although they never admitted responsibility.

The Tiger rebels have denied assassinating former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. He is believed to have been a target because he sent Indian peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka without the Tigers’ agreement.

The most common targets of Tiger assassins are Tamil politicians and office holders, from mayors to parliament members.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga was the target of a female suicide bomber last December at a campaign rally. The president lost the sight in her right eye and more than 20 other people were killed.

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