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Sri Lanka Declares Victory in War Against Rebels

BY Admin  May 18, 2009 at 11:40 AM EDT

Sri Lankans wave their national flag; Getty photo

A military victory would put the entire island nation under
government control for the first time since 1983 and end Prabhakaran’s
three-decade quest to establish an independent homeland for minority Tamils,
who are Hindu and Christian, make up about 15 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million
residents.

The charismatic Prabhakaran turned what was little more than
a street gang in the late 1970s into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,
which became one of the world’s most feared insurgencies and once controlled
about a quarter of the country. He demanded unwavering loyalty and distributed
vials of cyanide for followers to wear around their necks and bite into if
captured, according to media reports.

On Monday afternoon, state broadcaster Rupavahini television
broke into its regular programming to announce Prabhakaran’s death. The
government information department also sent a text message to cell phones
across the nation announcing he was killed along with his top deputies.

The news prompted celebrations among the Sinhalese majority
across Sri Lanka, with people taking to the streets of Colombo, singing and
dancing.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa said he would address Parliament
on Tuesday in what was expected to be a formal declaration of victory, the New
York Times reported.

But foreign ministers of the European Union said they were “appalled”
by reports of high civilian casualties in recent months and urged an
independent inquiry into alleged violations of international humanitarian and
human rights law by both sides.

International concern has grown recently over tens of
thousands of civilians who were trapped along with rebel fighters in their
ever-narrowing strip of land measuring no more than half a square mile. But the
government said Sunday that all civilians had escaped from the zone. The Tamil
Tigers said 3,000 had been killed in the preceding 24 hours, compelling the
rebels to halt fighting.

The United Nations estimates that at least 7,000 civilians have
died since January.

The government had been pressed to stop shelling known
civilian sites, including hospitals and the rebels were accused of holding
their own people hostage, but no amount of pressure worked, setting the stage
for Monday’s final battle.

Journalists have been barred from the war zone, and accounts
of Prabhakaran’s reported death have varied among news organizations.

The Associated Press reported that he and his top deputies
drove in an armor-plated van accompanied by a bus filled with armed rebels
toward approaching Sri Lankan forces, sparking a two-hour firefight, according
to senior military officials speaking on condition of anonymity. Troops
eventually fired a rocket at the van, ending the battle, they said. Troops then
pulled Prabhakaran’s body from the van and identified it as that of the rebel
leader.

But Reuters reported that Prabhakaran was killed as he tried
to flee the war zone in an ambulance, according to state television.

Officials told the Washington Post that DNA tests would be
conducted to verify Prabhakaran’s death. Television images showed gruesome
footage of bloodied bodies laid out side-by-side — one of them allegedly that
of the rebel leader, his face disfigured by a bullet or shrapnel.

LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Amman and Soosai, head of the
“Sea Tiger” naval wing, were also believed killed. Prabhakaran
founded the LTTE on a culture of suicide before surrender, and had sworn he
would never be taken alive.

It wasn’t possible to verify whether the men had been killed
in last-ditch fighting or had taken their own lives using their cyanide vials.

Sri Lankan army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka said
troops on Monday morning had finished the task President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave
them three years ago.

“We have liberated the entire country by completely
liberating the north from the terrorists. We have gained full control of
LTTE-held areas,” Fonseka said on state TV.

But the end of conventional fighting does not eliminate the
possibility of future guerrilla strikes. Tamil rebels are known to have
invented the suicide belt and the deadly mission of the suicide bombing.

LTTE spokesman Selvarasa Pathmanathan posted a statement on
the pro-rebel Web site, TamilNet, pointing to the group’s “fearless and
unending commitment to this cause.”

“This battle has reached its bitter end,” Mr.
Pathmanathan said on Sunday, according to news services. “We have decided
to silence our guns.” The statement made no direct mention of surrender
and did not concede defeat, but the acknowledgment of finality suggested that
the rebels knew the war was over.

Daily dispatches from rebel sources inside the dwindling war
zone and posted on TamilNet dwindled on Monday. A last report in the early
hours said that “initial reports indicate a determined massacre by the Sri
Lanka Army.”

Over the past 26 years, Sri Lanka’s violent struggles
attracted worldwide attention from human rights activists and world leaders. On
Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI said that he was praying for peace and reconciliation
and asked humanitarian groups to do everything possible to care for terrified
civilians.

“There are thousands of children, women, old people for
whom the war has taken years of their lives and hope,” he said at the
Vatican, according to the Post.