Sri Lanka\’s Tamil Tigers have admitted defeat in their decades-old battle for an independent ethnic homeland, as government forces close in on the remnants of the rebel army.
In what could mark the end of Asia\’s longest-running civil war, which left more than 70,000 dead in pitched battles, suicide attacks, bomb strikes and assassinations, the rebels say they are laying down their weapons.
Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the Tigers\’ chief of international relations, said on the pro-rebel Tamilnet website that the war was at “its bitter end”.
“We remain with one last choice – to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people,” he said, as the rebels claimed 25,000 dead or injured civilians were scattered across the war zone.
“We have decided to silence our guns. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer,” he added, calling for peace negotiations.
Rebel leader \’unnacounted for\’
But the military refused to let up in their offensive, saying troops were pushing on to recapture “every inch of land” held by the remnants of the Tamil Tiger army – estimated at less than a square kilometre of jungle.
Defence officials said they had recovered the corpses of two rebel commanders – but that there was no sign of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers\’ founder and leader, amid widespread speculation he may have committed suicide or fled.
Pathmanathan told Britain\’s Channel 4 news that Prabhakaran, who has been living underground since 1972, was still in the war zone along with 2,000 of his fighters – and ready to talk peace but not surrender.
Only two years ago, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) controlled nearly a third of the island nation and operated an effectively autonomous Tamil state with courts, schools and a civil service.
But the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse launched a military assault which drove the Tigers out of the east and then the north, before trapping the remaining guerrillas on a northeast coastal lagoon peninsula.
\’Massive death and destruction\’
“They were actually defeated some time ago, but they have formally accepted defeat only now,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
“They fought for an Eelam (separate state) that they could never win. It was only a waste of lives. They have caused massive death and destruction over the years. Finally they themselves have realised that it is all over.”
President Mahinda Rajapakse, who announced in Jordan on Saturday that his forces had defeated the rebels, was greeted by supporters waving flags and setting off firecrackers as he returned home on Sunday.
He is expected to announce in a special parliament session on Tuesday that the war is over, officials said, although street celebrations have already erupted across the country with residents hugging troops on the streets and offering sweets and milk rice to each other.
But the military\’s push has come at the cost of thousands of innocent lives, according to the United Nations, and the government has faced international condemnation for its conduct of the war in recent months.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only neutral organisation working in the war zone, described the situation as “an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe”.
The UN has called for a war crimes probe.
But Sri Lanka\’s officials said the army had managed to rescue all civilians held hostage by the Tigers.
“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 the past three days, raising the number of civilians who fled the war zone since January to nearly 250,000.
Refugee camp fears
But the displaced are being moved in to state-run “welfare villages” – camps ringed by barbed wire that are also a source of international alarm.
Human rights workers, aid groups and journalists are also being denied free access to the north.
Former colonial power Britain said Rajapakse also needed to address the root causes of the war.
“The fundamental responsibility is to build a political system in Sri Lanka in which all the communities, including the Tamils, have their rights fully respected,” British foreign secretary David Miliband told the BBC.
“That hasn\’t been the case, it needs to be the case.”