The whereabouts of Tamil Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran remained a mystery as Sri Lanka announced on Monday it would no longer use aircraft and heavy guns in the ongoing war.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa told CNN-IBN that he wanted Prabhakaran, proclaimed offender and accused number one in the May 1991 Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, to be taken alive.
He reiterated a known position that Prabhakaran, if arrested, would have to face trial in a string of murders and assassinations of top Lankan leaders, including President Ranasinghe Premadasa, before he could be extradited to India.
In 2002, he was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison for his involvement in the Central Bank bombing in Colombo in 1996. Several other cases are pending against him.
In effect, this means that Prabhakaran would have to spend the rest of his life in jail so India’s long-pending demand that he be handed over remains a largely academic issue even if the Tiger chief is captured.
Earlier, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had said that there was no way Prabhakaran could slip away to other parts of Sri Lanka. With thousands of soldiers surrounding the “no fire zone” and navy patrolling the seas – assuming he is in the NFZ – it would be very difficult for him to sneak out of the country.
On Monday, Colombo announced that combat operations against the LTTE were over, but clarified that no ceasefire had been put in place. Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadres are now reportedly holed up in a five-square kilometre strip of land.
A brief statement said, “Government of Sri Lanka has decided that combat operations have reached their conclusion. Our security forces have been instructed to end the use of heavy caliber guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties.”
The military will confine its attempts to “rescuing civilians who are held hostage and give foremost priority to saving civilians”.
Within minutes of the announcement, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who went on what appeared to be a synchronised hunger strike early on Monday, ended his protest.
The statement is being seen here as a sop or a concession to the Manmohan Singh government whose policies on the Tamil militants have been aligned with the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
On Friday, national security advisor, M.K. Narayanan and foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon had a closed-door meeting with Rajapaksa, seeking an immediate end to the killing of Tamil civilians ahead of the May 13 Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu.
“It (Colombo’s announcement) is a result of the efforts that the Government of India has been making over the last several days, especially in the last 72 hours. We have exerted pressure on the humanitarian situation,’’ home minister P. Chidambaram, who is contesting from Tamil Nadu, told PTI.
Military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara stressed in Colombo the government has not declared a ceasefire. He clarified that only the use of heavy weapons and combat aircraft will be halted.
“This is…an extension of what the security forces have been continuing since the fall of Mullaittivu, as terrorists resorted to taking thousands of civilians as hostage,’’ the defence ministry said. It means that ground operations would continue against the LTTE rump. As expected, the LTTE brushed aside the statement.
“Two Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) fighter bombers continued to bomb civilian targets in Mu'livaaykkaal after the announcement by the Sri Lankan forces that it would not deploy heavy weapons or carry out air attacks as pressure mounted from the International Community,” an LTTE spokesman, S. Puleedevan, claimed.