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Tamil Tiger head may have fled Sri Lanka says army chief

COLOMBO (Reuters) - The elusive leader of the Tamil Tigers may have already fled Sri Lanka with the army charging fast towards the separatist rebels’ final strongholds, Sri Lanka’s army commander said.

Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, attends the annual "Heroes' Week" statement at rebel-held territory in Kilinochchi November 27, 2007. REUTERS/LTTE/Handout

Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka, commanding the most successful army offensive in the history of one of Asia’s longest-running wars, also predicted victory in a matter of months as the Tigers’ resistance was weaker than expected.

“Prabhakaran is a man who loves food, a man who loves his family, so I don’t think he would wait until the military got so close to him,” Fonseka told reporters late on Saturday. “He must have already escaped through the sea.” He declined to speculate on where the Tamil Tiger leader would have fled to.

Fonseka said Tiger founder and leader Velupillai Prabhakaran would neither commit suicide as he exhorts his followers to do with cyanide capsules worn around their necks, nor allow himself to be captured like former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Fonseka said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) now hold an area of 30 km (18 miles) by 15 km (9 miles), and said troops had marched 17 km towards Mullaittivu in as many days.

The LTTE could not be reached for comment.

“When the war started, I used 50 map sheets to plan it. Now I only need one sheet to plan it,” he said.

Fonseka, who spoke at an annual dinner he hosts for defence correspondents at his residence, joked that he expected most of them “to be out of work by this time next year.” He wore a black shirt, adorned with a dragon strangling a tiger.

The Indian Ocean island nation has put its navy and air force on high alert, patrolling the 40 km (25 miles) of coast that the army has yet to secure in a multi-pronged assault gunning for the northeastern port of Mullaittivu.

Local media this week reported that intelligence reports said Prabhakaran may have sought the help of foreign countries to rescue him via submarine. The Tigers are on U.S., Indian and E.U. terrorist lists.

Prabhakaran is wanted by Interpol and India for the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a suicide bomber, plus other suicide attacks and killings of Sri Lankan civilians and politicians including Tamils.

On January 2, soldiers captured the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) self-proclaimed capital of Kilinochci, in a crushing blow to the Tigers’ separatist plans, which are at the heart of a war that has raged off and on since 1983.

Over the weekend, India’s Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon concluded a visit to Sri Lanka that included a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a statement from the Indian High Commission said on Sunday.

“The Foreign Secretary urged early movement towards a peacefully negotiated political settlement in the island,” it said, referring to Rajapaksa’s commitment to devolve some powers to Tamil and other areas.

In a blow to Tamil politicians in southern Indian that support the LTTE and have agitated for India to impose a cease-fire, Menon made no mention of it.

He said Sri Lanka needed to prevent civilian casualties and handed over a consignment of medicine for them.

The LTTE say they are fighting to address mistreatment of minority Tamils since the Sinhalese ethnic majority took over at independence from Britain in 1948. But many Sinhalese say Tamils enjoyed unfair advantages in colonial times and want them back.

Editing by Valerie Lee