COLOMBO (AFP) – – The leader of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was shot dead on Monday while trying to flee advancing troops, defence officials told AFP.
Prabhakaran was with several close aides in a small convoy of a van and ambulance which tried to drive out of the battle zone when it was ambushed by commandos, the senior defence ministry official said.
The news came as the military said that the entire island was now under government control, after decades of conflict with the rebels that left more than 70,000 people dead.
Prabhakaran was “killed with two others inside the vehicle. There will be a formal announcement later,” the official said on condition he not be named.
The defence ministry said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leadership was decimated, heralding an end to their long battle to carve out an independent ethnic homeland in the north of the island.
“LTTE terrorists made their final bid to evacuate its leaders early this morning,” a statement on the defence ministry website said, adding “senior leaders” tried to escape in two vehicles but were “crushed.”
It did not officially confirm or deny Prabhakaran’s death, but said bodies were being identified. The military said his two deputies had been killed.
The defence ministry said that troops had found the bodies of Prabhakaran’s 24-year-old son Charles Anthony, the group’s political wing leader B. Nadesan, and the head of the LTTE’s Peace Secretariat, S. Pulideevan.
Also reportedly found dead were the LTTE’s police chief Ilango, its eastern leader, S. Ramesh, and deputy intelligence chief Kapil Amman.
The pro-rebel Tamilnet website said the leadership had appealed to the Red Cross to be evacuated, and that “initial reports indicate a determined massacre by the Sri Lanka Army.”
In a dramatic announcement, the guerrillas acknowledged 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.
The separatist rebels were once one of the world’s most feared guerrilla armies, and ran a de facto mini-state spanning a third of the island before the government began a major offensive two years ago.
“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.
But his appeals for peace talks — rather than a surrender — were flatly rejected by the government.
Sri Lanka’s hawkish president, Mahinda Rajapakse, will open a new session of parliament Tuesday with an address that will officially mark the end of the war.
The conflict has left more than 70,000 dead from pitched battles, suicide attacks, bomb strikes and assassinations. The LTTE emerged in the 1970s, with all-out war erupting in the early 1980s.
The capital Colombo, which has been frequently hit by Tiger suicide attacks over the past quarter century, saw street celebrations which lasted well into Sunday night.
The Sri Lankan government’s moment of triumph has 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.”