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Archive for Monday, May 18, 2009

Thousands celebrate as rebels in Sri Lanka concede defeat

In this handout photograph provided by Sri Lanka’s army dated Saturday, Sri Lankan soldiers carry their national flag, center, along with their unit flags at a site they say is the last stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels close to the war front in Kariyalamullivaikkal, Sri Lanka.

In this handout photograph provided by Sri Lanka’s army dated Saturday, Sri Lankan soldiers carry their national flag, center, along with their unit flags at a site they say is the last stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels close to the war front in Kariyalamullivaikkal, Sri Lanka.

May 18, 2009

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— Clouds of black smoke drifted over the remnants of the shadow state the Tamil Tiger rebels had previously controlled across northern Sri Lanka. The once-feared insurgent group lay in tatters, its dreams of a homeland for minority Tamils dashed.

Far from the battlefield, thousands of Sri Lankans danced in the streets of Colombo, celebrating their government’s stunning victory after more than 25 years of civil war that killed more than 70,000 people.

As government forces swept across the rebels’ last outposts in the northeast Sunday, the Tamil Tiger rebels admitted defeat and offered to lay down their guns. The government ignored the offer and raced to clear the last pockets of rebel resistance from the battlefield.

But with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran still at large, the threat of renewed guerrilla warfare remained. Several rebel fighters committed suicide when they were surrounded, but it wasn’t clear whether Prabhakaran or other leaders were among them.

Sri Lanka’s military said today that Prabhakaran’s eldest son had been killed in fighting.

Military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara says army troops today found the body of Charles Anthony.

Prabhakaran has three children and Charles Anthony — named after a rebel leader who died earlier in the war — was the only one thought to be fighting along with his father.

There was no immediate comment from the rebels and it was not possible to independently verify the military’s claim as journalists and observers are barred from the war zone.

Rebels lose power

The Tamil Tigers once controlled a wide swath of the north of this Indian Ocean island nation, running a de facto state complete with courts, police and a tax system. By Sunday, they were surrounded in a patch of land less than 0.4 square miles, the military said.

On the battlefield, soldiers inspected the charred remains of rebel trucks and heavy artillery pieces, according to footage broadcast on state television. Civilians carrying backpacks and rolling suitcases were escorted from the area.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said the civilians who had been trapped in the war zone — 63,000 in all — fled to safety during the past 72 hours. But rebel official Selvarasa Pathmanathan said the bodies of thousands of wounded and slain civilians lay strewn across the war zone.

“This battle has reached its bitter end,” Pathmanathan said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. “It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. 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.”

Media Minister Anura Yapa dismissed the appeal. “We want to free this country from the terrorist LTTE,” he said, referring to the group by its formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The military spokesman denied the rebels had laid down their weapons. “Fighting is still going on in small pockets,” he said.

Civilians at risk

Rights groups have accused the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields, and blamed the government for shelling the densely populated area where they sought refuge. Both sides denied the accusations.

Health officials in the area have said thousands of civilians were killed in shelling since the beginning of the year.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority after years of marginalization at the hands of the Sinhalese majority.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that after defeating the rebels, his government will begin talks toward power sharing and political reconciliation. But many Tamils are skeptical that the victorious government will be willing to make real concessions.

At their height, the rebels controlled 5,400 square miles, nearly one-fifth of this Indian Ocean island nation.

They had a conventional army complete with artillery batteries, a large navy and even a nascent air force, funded by an estimated $200 million to $300 million a year they made from smuggling, fraud and appeals to Tamil expatriates. They also carried out hundreds of suicide attacks — including the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — and were listed as a terror group by the U.S., European Union and India.

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