The Sri Lankan government on Tuesday displayed the battered body of Tamil Tigers chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, shortly after the rebels claimed he was still alive, while President Mahinda Rajapaksa formally announced the end of the dragging ethnic conflict and offered a political settlement acceptable to all communities.
Even as Tamils angered by Prabhakaran's dramatic death protested in Tamil Nadu and some Western capitals, Sri Lankan authorities scotched rumours that the elusive rebel may have escaped by showing his body. It was found near a lagoon in the island's north where he was apparently holed up when the pursuing military zeroed in on him.
Contrary to previous claims that he was killed while trying to escape in an ambulance, an officer said on Tuesday that the army fought "a really hard battle" against the last of the guerrillas, perhaps including Prabhakaran, the legendary leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
"The final concluding operations were done yesterday (Monday). We had a really hard battle between the hardcore terrorists from early hours to the late afternoon," defence ministry spokesperson Lakshman Hulugalle told Times Now television.
On Monday, it was stated that the ambulance in which the LTTE chief was said to be fleeing caught fire, apparently burning his face, after being attacked by soldiers determined to kill him.
"There are no burn marks," Hulugalle admitted. "Definitely he had injuries behind the head."
Prabhakaran's body, placed on a stretcher, was in his trademark battle fatigues, the eyes wide open. Soldiers standing around him had placed a handkerchief on the head, seemingly to cover portions that appeared to have been blown away.
Found on his body was a tag bearing number 001, indicating his membership number in the LTTE.
The display of Prabhakaran's body ignited another round of frenzied celebrations in Colombo and elsewhere in the country as thousands, mainly members of the majority Sinhalese community, poured out of their homes to dance on the streets, distribute sweets and wave national flags.
Elsewhere, there was anger over the killing of Prabhakaran, a man who spearheaded a violent insurgency for more than a quarter century to break up Sri Lanka and create an independent Tamil homeland.
Sporadic protests broke out in three towns of Tamil Nadu but these were quickly put down by the police. Much larger demonstrations were seen in London, where many people were injured, and Toronto. Both cities are home to tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils, many of whom supported the LTTE and considered Prabhakaran a hero.
In Colombo, President Rajapaksa, flush with a military victory that had eluded all his predecessors for decades, told parliament: "Today, we have been able to liberate the whole country from LTTE terrorism. We have been able to defeat one of the most heinous terrorist groups in the world."
Rajapaksa said he did not believe the war was the final solution to the ethnic conflict and said his task would be to offer a political settlement that would be acceptable to all communities.
He stressed that the end of the LTTE was not a defeat for the Tamil community and urged "all Tamils who left the country to return". He added quickly: "There are no minority communities in the country."
The confirmation of Prabhakaran's death came a day after authorities announced the decimation of the once powerful LTTE with the killing of all its top leaders, including Prabhakaran, his son Charles Anthony, who was being groomed to succeed him, intelligence chief Pottu Amman, Sea Tigers chief Soosai, political wing leader B. Nadesan and S. Puleedevan of the LTTE Peace Secretariat.
Only six months ago, Prabhakaran had mocked at the Sri Lankan state, saying Colombo would never be able to seize the territory in the island's north which the LTTE controlled.
But a determined military push quickly pushed the LTTE into the interior of Mullaitivu district, eventually restricting the fighters in a secluded coastal strip from where no escape was possible.
His death marks the end of one of the longest running insurgencies in the world which also cast a shadow over neighbouring India.
Among the many Prabhakaran ordered killed was former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi who was blown up a woman suicide bomber at an election rally near Chennai on May 21, 1991. Gandhi had sent the Indian Army to Sri Lanka in 1987 to end Tamil separatism. But the LTTE ended up fighting the Indian soldiers, killing nearly 1,200 of them. The Indians went home in 1990.
Earlier on Tuesday, a stunned LTTE, still retaining a lot of support abroad, said it "categorically rejected" government claims that Prabhakaran was dead.
"Our beloved leader is alive and safe," LTTE spokesperson S. Pathmanathan said in a statement released on the pro-rebel TamilNet website. "He will continue to lead the quest for dignity and freedom for the Tamil people."