COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s military said on Tuesday Tamil Tiger rebel leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s body had been found, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged Tamils to join in rebuilding a nation split by a 25-year separatist war.
Footage broadcast on Sri Lankan TV showed what appeared to be the corpse of the man who plunged the Indian Ocean island nation into one of the world’s most intractable wars, his eyes open, face bloated and the top of his head blown off.
The military declared total victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after a climactic gunbattle on Monday, putting Sri Lanka completely back under government rule for the first time since the war erupted in 1983.
State TV showed victorious soldiers — some clearly too young to have been born when the war started in 1983 — firing their AK-47s in the air as an officer motioned for them to cease fire.
With a war long viewed as unwinnable now over, Rajapaksa gave a speech in parliament promising major development in the formerly Tiger-controlled areas in northern Sri Lanka and pledging to protect the rights of Tamils.
“It is necessary that the political solutions they need should be brought to them,” he said. “However, it cannot be an imported solution ... it is necessary that we find a solution that is our very own, of our own nation.”
He pledged rapid resettlement of the more than 250,000 Tamils now in internment camps and urged international investors to come to Sri Lanka and invest in its rebuilding.
“This is our country, this is our motherland. We should live in this country as children of one mother. No differences of race, caste and religion should prevail here,” Rajapaksa, who is Sinhalese, said in Tamil.
Tamils complain of marginalization by successive governments led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority, which came to power at independence in 1948 and took the favored position the minority Tamils had enjoyed under the British colonial government.
The LTTE sprang up in the 1970s to fight for a separate nation for Tamils. After destroying rival groups, it later grew into one of the world’s best-armed irregular forces with a place on more than 30 nations’ lists of terrorist groups.
Army commander General Sarath Fonseka for the first time gave official confirmation of Prabhakaran’s death shortly after a pro-rebel website said he was “alive and safe.”
“The good news from the war front is that the body of the leader of the terrorist organization which destroyed the country for the last 30 years, Prabhakaran, has been found this morning by the army. We have identified the body,” Fonseka said.
Moments later, private television stations Derana and Swarnavahini showed soldiers surrounding what they said was Prabhakaran’s body, with his trademark mustache and distinctive Tiger stripe camouflage fatigues.
Later in the day, a former top LTTE fighter who defected to the government, Vinyagamoorthy Muralitharan, flew to northern Sri Lanka and positively identified the body, state TV showed.
Wearing a purple shirt, the man better known in his guerrilla days as Karuna Amman said the body was Prabhakaran’s.
No independent verification was available.
On Tuesday, a pro-rebel website had denied the death.
“I wish to inform the global Tamil community distressed witnessing the final events of the war that our beloved leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran is alive and safe,” www.TamilNet.com quoted LTTE diplomatic head Selvarajah Pathmanathan as saying.
The confusion was a fitting end to a war marked as much by its propaganda and distortions of the truth as its brutality, punctuated by hundreds of suicide bombings and assassinations by the LTTE and battlefield atrocities by both sides.
The defeat of the Tigers was met with a wave of disbelief among the pro-rebel Tamil diaspora, which for years funded the LTTE’s operations and procurement of an arsenal on par with a national army.
“It’s not true, no way,” Sri Lankan-born Jey Moorthy, 23, said in London. “It’s going to continue, we are not going to leave it like this.”
Western powers urged the government to engage the Tamil community for the future, a challenge Rajapaksa said he had already accepted. He urged Tamils to return home.
“This is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to turn the page on its past and build a Sri Lanka rooted in democracy, tolerance and respect for human rights,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters on Monday.
China, which has backed Sri Lanka against criticism that has grown into British, EU and U.N. calls for a probe into potential humanitarian law violations, urged rapid peacebuilding.
“We genuinely hope that Sri Lanka can, through its own efforts, realize ethnic reconciliation at the earliest stage, social stability and economic development,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told reporters.
Sri Lanka is banking on post-war development aid to rebuild the north and spur an economy beset woes, including declining export revenues from tea and garments, depleted foreign exchange reserves and a depreciating rupee currency.
It is also seeking a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, which the United States tried to use as leverage to slow the final assault. But the IMF’s director later said Sri Lanka needed it, and expected to work something out soon.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Paul Tait