LTTE ends armed struggle; questions remain about Prabhakaran (Nightlead)

May 17th, 2009 - 9:42 pm ICT by IANS  

Colombo, May 17 (IANS) Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger guerrillas announced dramatically Sunday they were calling off their quarter-century long armed struggle citing the deaths of thousands of civilians as speculation gripped the country that the elusive Velupillai Prabhakaran may be dead.
Announcing an end to the campaign to carve out a Tamil state in the island’s northeast, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said they had decided to “silence” their guns as the “battle has reached its bitter end”.

The momentous announcement that had deep implications for this country of 20 milllion people, and in fact the South Asian region, came a day after President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared in Jordan Saturday that the “barbaric acts of the LTTE” had ended after three long decades.

Speculation immediately mounted that Prabhakaran, 54, who founded the LTTE in 1976 and built it brick by brick as one of the deadliest insurgent groups, had been killed in the coastal belt of Mullaitivu district, around 395 km northeast of Colombo.

There was no word from the LTTE about Prabhakaran, who had been on the retreat since the start of this year, while one government official denied that the rebel leader had been killed or may have committed suicide.

The defence ministry said late Sunday night there was no trace of Prabhakaran’s body yet. But some sources insisted that Prabhakaran was no more.

“This battle has reached its bitter end… We have decided to silence our guns,” said a statement from S. Pathmanathan, head of the LTTE’s International Relations department and posted on the TamilNet website.

“Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer,” it said, referring to the fierce fighting in recent weeks between an aggressive military and the increasingly beleaguered Tigers.

Pathmanathan, a Prabhakaran confidant who lives outside Sri Lanka, blamed the international community for the plight of the Tamil civilians killed and wounded in the relentless military onslaught in the country’s north.

Accusing Colombo of killing thousands of Tamils since 2007, he said: “We need to do everything within our means to stop this carnage. If this means silencing our arms and entering a peace process, that is something that we have already agreed to.

“This is the need of the hour. These are historically unprecedented times and require historically prudent decisions.

“We cannot permit any more harm to befall them. We remain with one last choice — to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns.”

Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, which took the form of an insurgency in 1983, has claimed nearly 90,000 lives and left the scenic island nation battered and bruised.

The defence ministry said the last of the rebels were not confined to a tiny area of 400 metres by 600 metres near the coast and that it had rescued the thousands of civilians who were trapped in the war zone.

Some 12,000 civilians came out Sunday, raising the total of number of civilians who have escaped from the area to 72,000 in 72 hours.

The figures go well beyond the government estimates of the civilian population. They had previous insisted that only about 20,000 civilians were trapped in the combat zone.

Earlier in the day the army foiled a last-ditch, pre-dawn attempt by the Tamil rebels to breach military defences, killing at least 70 fighters and destroying six vessels, a military spokesman said.

Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said the rebels, initially posing as civilians, had crossed a lagoon and tried to breach the defences around 1.30 a.m., but were confronted and killed.

He did not say whether the army suffered any casualties in the incident.

The ministry made no mention about the current state of fighting, though other military sources said there were reports of continuing operations in the area.

The military earlier reported a series of loud explosions in the rebel enclaves, but have not given details of the damages caused. Army sources said that some 40 senior members of the movement were believed killed in fighting.

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