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Sri Lanka says rebel leader likely in war zone

world Updated: Mar 16, 2009 12:45 IST

AP
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There is a chance the leader of the Tamil rebels is still in a shrinking war zone in northern Sri Lanka and has not fled the country, the military said on Monday. Speculation has been widespread about the location of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran _ who has vowed not to be captured alive _ with local news reports speculating that he could be in South Africa and Malaysia.

"There is a possibility Prabhakaran is still there," military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. "They are putting up tough resistance and that may be because he is still there." The rebels are struggling to hold onto a shrinking swath of land _ estimated at 13.5 square miles (35 square kilometers) _ on Sri Lanka's northeast coast. The sides have been fighting for control of the last rebel-held town of Puthukkudiyiruppu, about 175 miles (280 kilometers) northeast of the capital of Colombo.

Nanayakkara said fighting around Puthukkudiyiruppu was ongoing, and it was not possible to say how long it would take for the government to capture the town.

Last week, government troops captured the last remaining medical facility held by Tamil rebels near Puthukkudiyiruppu. A rebel police station was taken at the weekend, he said.

The rebels could not be reached for comment, and it was not possible to verify the reports independently because reporters are barred from the coastal war zone.

Prabhakaran commands an almost fanatical allegiance from his troops. The leader and his men wear a string around their necks with a cyanide capsule to commit suicide in order to avoid capture. TamilNet, a pro-rebel Web site that has become almost the sole voice of the rebels since they were driven out of their de facto headquarters in Kilinochchi in early January, has not commented on Prabhakaran's whereabouts.

In an interview earlier this month with Australia's Special Broadcasting Service radio, a rebel leader who identified himself as Thileepan said Prabhakaran was still in the war zone but there has been no way to confirm it.

The rebels have fought since 1983 for an independent state for the Tamil minority, which suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.