COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka declared total victory on Monday in one of the world’s most intractable wars, after killing the separatist Tamil Tigers’ leader and taking control of the entire country for the first time since 1983.
In a climactic gunbattle, special forces troops killed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran as he tried to flee the war zone in an ambulance early on Monday, state television reported.
Prabhakaran, 54, founded the LTTE on a culture of suicide before surrender, and had sworn he would never be taken alive.
Army commander Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka said troops had crushed the last Tigers resisting an offensive that has in less than three years destroyed a group that had cultivated an aura of military invincibility while earning many terrorism designations.
“We have liberated the entire country by completely liberating the north from the terrorists. We have gained full control of LTTE-held areas,” Fonseka announced on state TV.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa had already declared victory on Saturday, even as the final battle in Asia’s longest modern war was intensifying after the last of 72,000 civilians held in the war zone had been freed.
The LTTE conceded defeat on Sunday. But it has long warned it would intensify guerrilla attacks on economically valuable targets if defeated on the battlefield, something which has hindered growth in Sri Lanka’s tourism sector.
The end of combat and Prabhakaran’s death sent the currency and stock markets to one-month and seven-month highs respectively.
The final act played out on a sandy patch of just 300 sq meters (3,230 sq ft) near the Indian Ocean island’s northeastern coast, where the military said the last Tiger fighters had holed up in bunkers guarded by land mines and booby traps.
More than 250 Tigers corpses were recovered, and Fonseka said checks were underway to see if Prabhakaran’s was among them.
Already, the body of his son and heir-apparent, Charles Anthony, and two top lieutenants, intelligence chief Pottu Amman and naval wing leader Soosai, had been identified.
State TV showed several bodies, including that of Charles Anthony.
The LTTE had no immediate comment. Independent confirmation of battlefield accounts are all but impossible, since the war zone has been sealed off to most outsiders.
Officially, the military has not confirmed Prabhakaran’s death. Rajapaksa is expected to do so on Tuesday in a speech to be broadcast nationally from parliament.
India, which originally armed the LTTE but later fought it during a disastrous 1987-1990 peacekeeping mission, urged Rajapaksa to devolve political power to ethnic Tamils.
“It is our view that as the conventional conflict in Sri Lanka comes to an end, this is the moment when the root causes of conflict in Sri Lanka can be addressed,” a foreign ministry statement said.
Rajapaksa has pledged to call elections in the former LTTE areas as swiftly as possible.
The two sides had refused to negotiate an end to the war, despite Western calls to protect what the United Nations said were 50,000-100,000 people held by the LTTE as human shields.
The military has long viewed killing Prabhakaran as essential to stopping the LTTE from regenerating, since he has maintained total control over it since founding it in 1976.
He singlehandedly turned the LTTE into one of the best-armed irregular forces, which carried out hundreds of assassinations and suicide bombings, and maintained an army, naval wing and a even a combat air wing of light planes.
Sri Lanka’s triumph was not without controversy. The European Union on Monday urged an independent inquiry into alleged human rights violations, mainly over reported civilian deaths.
Sri Lanka accuses the West of double standards when it comes to civilian deaths, and points to U.S. air strikes that have killed innocent people in Afghanistan and Pakistan as an example.
In Colombo, demonstrators threw rocks at the British High Commission, tossed a burning effigy of Foreign Secretary David Miliband inside and spray-painted its heavily fortified wall with epithets and a message: “LTTE headquarters.”
Miliband has been critical of the government’s prosecution of the war, and is seen here as sympathetic to the vocal pro-LTTE lobby that has protested outside Britain’s parliament for weeks.
Sri Lanka has been furious that LTTE supporters have been allowed to vandalize several of its embassies in Western capitals as part of a series of protests against the war.
In the Tamil-majority Indian state of Tamil Nadu, security forces were on high alert in case Tiger sympathizers reacted violently to news of Prabhakaran’s death, police said.
Tamils complain of marginalization at the hands of successive governments led by the Sinhalese majority, which came to power at independence in 1948 and took the favored position the Tamils had enjoyed under the British colonial government.
The LTTE at the height of its power had ruled a de facto state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority that it called Tamil Eelam, where it collected taxes and had its own courts and police.
But the very government the LTTE fought against provided essential services like health care, education and electricity.