COLOMBO (Reuters) - The Tamil Tigers conceded defeat in Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war on Sunday, with some staging suicide attacks to try to repel a final assault by troops determined to annihilate them.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa had already declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) the day before, and the military said the bulk of the fighting was over by the time the rebels said they had been beaten.
Even though there was little doubt about the final outcome of Asia’s longest modern war, sporadic battles were still being fought late on Sunday and no one was willing to predict when the last bullet would be fired.
“We are doing the mopping-up operations,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. “Suicide cadres are coming in front of troops in the frontline and exploding themselves.”
Rajapaksa was due to make a formal victory announcement in parliament on Tuesday morning, but already flags were flying, people were dancing and lighting off fireworks in celebration.
The last act was playing out in what the military said was less than 1 square km (0.5 sq mile), where the LTTE carried out suicide attacks on Sunday before troops freed the last of 72,000 civilians who have fled over four days.
LTTE founder-leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s fate remained a mystery, although military sources said a body believed to be his was recovered and its identity was being confirmed.
The LTTE, founded on a culture of suicide before surrender, at the last minute issued a statement from its diplomatic chief saying: “This battle has reached its bitter end.”
“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,” said Selvarajah Pathmanathan’s statement, posted on the pro-rebel www.TamilNet web site.
Pathmanathan, who is wanted by Interpol and was for years the LTTE’s chief weapons smuggler, said 3,000 people lay dead and 25,000 more were wounded.
Getting an independent picture of events in the war zone is normally a difficult task, given both sides have repeatedly distorted accounts to suit their side of the story and outside observers are generally barred from it.
Government forces on Saturday took control of the entire island’s coast for the first time since war broke out in 1983, cutting off any chance of escape for a militant group whose conventional defeat has been a foregone conclusion for months.
The military has in less than three years captured 15,000 square kms (5,792 sq miles) the Tigers had controlled as a quasi-state for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils.
There was still no confirmed word on the fate of Prabhakaran, who built the LTTE into one of the world’s most violent armed groups through hundreds of suicide bombings and assassinations, which earned it a terrorist designation in more than 30 nations.
“They are taking the body for checks to confirm it is the real Prabhakaran,” a military official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. Four other military sources confirmed the account.
Nanayakkara denied Prabhakaran’s body had been found, and that checks on a corpse were being carried out.
The cataclysmic end to the war came after the government rejected calls for a truce to protect civilians, and the Tigers refused to surrender and free 50,000-100,000 people the United Nations and others said they were holding as human shields.
Each side accuses the other of killing civilians, and diplomats say there is evidence both have done so. The U.N. rights chief on Friday said she backed an inquiry into potential war crimes and humanitarian violations by both sides.
A wave of diplomatic pressure from the United States, Britain, France and the United Nations last week, including threats to delay a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, appeared to come too late to stop the final fight.
Sri Lanka’s $40 billion economy is struggling with depleted foreign exchange reserves, shrinking export revenues for tea and garments, rising import costs, a declining rupee currency and a balance of payments crisis.
Rajapaksa’s government is counting on victory in the war to help boost the economy and renew economic growth that for years had been among the highest in south Asia.
The Tigers have warned that their conventional defeat will usher in a new phase of guerrilla conflict targeting Sri Lanka’s economically valuable targets, an indirect threat to a tourism sector the government hopes can be boosted after the war.
Rajapaksa kissed the ground after he returned home early on Sunday from an official visit to Jordan, state TV showed.
The Tigers have answered earlier battlefield losses with suicide bombings in the capital, Colombo.
Prabhakaran began his fight for a separate state for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils in the early 1970s, and it erupted into a full-scale civil war in 1983 that has killed at least 70,000.
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.
An Indian foreign ministry official said there was no immediate reaction to the report of the Tigers conceding defeat.