Sri Lanka hunts Tamil Tiger leader after rebels admit defeat
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Sri Lanka hunts Tamil Tiger leader after rebels admit defeat

In a dramatic announcement, Sri Lanka has vowed to kill or capture the remnants of the Tamil Tiger army, with an intensive search underway today for the leader of the defeated rebels.

world Updated: May 18, 2009 08:17 IST

Sri Lanka has vowed to kill or capture the remnants of the Tamil Tiger army, with an intensive search underway Monday for the leader of the defeated rebels.

In a dramatic announcement, the guerrillas admitted Sunday that their battle for an independent ethnic homeland had reached its "bitter end" -- signalling Asia's longest running civil war was all but over.

"We have decided to silence our guns. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer," Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the Tigers' chief of international relations, said in a statement.
Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa worships the motherland as he arrives from Jordan at the Katunayake international air port in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo by: Sanka Vidanagama / AP

He said the rebel leadership, including Tamil Tiger chief Prabhakaran, was still holed up in an area of less than 60 acres of jungle on the northeast coast, surrounded by government forces.

But his appeals for peace talks -- rather than a surrender -- were flatly rejected by the government, and the defence ministry said troops were being sent in to crush the last die-hard fighters and recapture "every inch of land."

The island's hawkish president, Mahinda Rajapakse, was expected to announce in parliament on Tuesday that the decades-old war -- one that left more than 70,000 dead in pitched battles, suicide attacks, bomb strikes and assassinations -- had been won.

The capital Colombo, which has been frequently hit by Tiger suicide attacks over the past quarter century, was the scene of street celebrations which lasted well into Sunday night.

But Sri Lankan authorities are still determined to capture, kill or recover the body of Prabhakaran amid fears his escape could lead to an attempt to rebuild the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and a new cycle of guerrilla warfare.

"We have still not come across Prabhakaran and his senior leaders," defence spokesman Lakshman Hulugalle told reporters, dismissing speculation that he was dead and his body had been recovered.

Rebel official Pathmanathan, believed to be in hiding in a Southeast Asian nation, told Britain's Channel 4 news that Prabhakaran, who has been living underground since 1972, was still alive on Sunday along with 2,000 of his fighters.

But there have also been reports he may have committed suicide by blowing himself up -- making sure his body is not found and his aura lives on -- or that he may have slipped away by boat or even submarine.
Sri Lankans display the national flag and set off celebratory fireworks, after President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory in the country's quarter-century civil war with the separatist rebels, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo by: Eranga Jayawardena, AP
The Sri Lankan government's moment of triumph has also come at the cost of thousands of innocent lives lost in indiscriminate shelling, according to the United Nations. The UN's rights body now wants a war crimes probe.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only neutral organisation that has been allowed to work in the war zone, has for its part described "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe."

But Sri Lanka has shrugged off the international pressure.

"There was no bloodbath as some people feared," Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told reporters. "Everybody has come out safely and they are being looked after by the government."

He said more than 63,000 people had crossed over into government territory in recent days, raising the total number of civilians who had fled the war zone since January to nearly 250,000.

The displaced are being moved into state-run "welfare villages" -- camps ringed by barbed wire which are another source of international alarm. Rights workers, aid groups and journalists are also being denied free access to the north.

Meanwhile, Norway, the former negotiator in the conflict, said peace was far from won in Sri Lanka, despite the government's claims.

"The conflict is not resolved even if the battle has been won," said Minister of Environment and International Development Erik Solheim, calling on the authorities to "demonstrate generosity towards the Tamil population and grant Tamils autonomy."

First Published: May 18, 2009 07:33 IST