By Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO, May 25 (Reuters) - The Tamil Tigers have for the first time acknowledged the death of their founder and leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, whose body the Sri Lankan military displayed as proof it had won a quarter-century civil war.
A statement from the remnants of the rebel group issued late on Sunday said he had been killed a week before in the final battle of what had become Asia’s longest modern war. Sri Lanka declared total victory on May 18.
"We announce today, with inexpressible sadness and heavy hearts, that our incomparable leader and supreme commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attained martyrdom fighting the military oppression of the Sri Lankan government on May 17," an e-mailed statement by the rebels said.
The statement was signed by Selvarajah Pathmanathan, the Tigers’s diplomatic chief and for years the man in charge of the acquisition of weapons for the LTTE.
Wanted by Interpol and believed to be in hiding somewhere in southeast Asia, Pathmanathan is the most senior LTTE operative still alive and is expected to take its leadership role.
He also asked Tamils around the world to "restrain from harmful acts to themselves or anyone else" during a weeklong mourning period.
Before meeting his end near a marshy lagoon in the land he fought three decades to establish as a separate nation for Sri Lanka’s Tamils, Prabhakaran had almost singlehandedly propelled one of the world’s most brutal and intractable wars.
In a telephone interview with the BBC on Sunday, Pathmanathan said the LTTE had already "announced that we have given up violence and agreed to enter a democratic process".
Sri Lanka meanwhile urged foreign governments to help arrest Pathmanathan and other LTTE operatives working abroad. The LTTE has been designated a terrorist organisation by more than 30 countries.
"They are engaged in terrorist activities and we urge the international community therefore either to take action against them in their countries or hand them to us," Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa said on Ada Derana TV late on Sunday.
The architect of the Tigers’ long campaign, Prabhakaran, had vowed never to be taken alive, and on Tuesday, Sri Lankan army Commander General Sarath Fonseka said soldiers had killed the island’s most wanted man.
Video footage aired shortly thereafter showed what the military said was Prabhakaran’s corpse with a bullet wound in his forehead.
The military said he had been killed on Monday, but neither it nor the LTTE has given a clear account of his final moments.
Pathmanathan a week ago had said Prabhakaran was alive and safe, the day before the military produced the corpse.
But even as Pathmanathan conceded the Tiger founder’s death, pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com on Sunday quoted one LTTE front as saying Prabhakaran and other leaders were alive.
"The Intelligence Department of the Tigers reiterated on Sunday that the LTTE leadership is safe and it will re-emerge when the right time comes," TamilNet said.
TamilNet said it would not "take any responsibility for any of the stands taken, as these are beyond its independent verification". (Editing by Alex Richardson)