Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo May 18, 2009

Sri Lankan Rebels Admit Defeat



Sri Lanka is a byword for beauty and tragedy. Even the wholesale devastation of the Asian tsunami...


Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, the once formidable insurgency that pioneered guerrilla suicide attacks, claimed Sunday they had given up their 25-year battle for an ethnic homeland on the tropical island nation.

Surrounded in a small coconut grove with Sri Lankan forces closing in, several leaders reportedly committed suicide instead of surrendering.

The reports, if accurate, would mark the end of a rebel movement that once controlled nearly one-fifth of the island and oversaw a civil administration, navy and air force bankrolled by up to $300 million a year from smuggling and from donations by expatriate Tamils all over the world.

"We have decided to silence our guns. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer," Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the Tigers' head of international relations, said in a statement posted on a pro-Tamil Web site.

The announcement could end the quarter-century conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people. The war climaxed with a bloody government offensive into the Tigers' last outpost, a tiny strip of land on the country's northeastern coast.

Critics say the death toll has swelled in recent months from government shelling of Tamil civilians trapped in a shrinking war zone. The rebels are accused of using people as human shields and of killing civilians who attempt to flee.

Government forces pressed ahead with "mopping-up operations" Sunday to clear pockets of resistance, with some holdouts carrying out suicide attacks as troops advanced on rebel-held territory of less than a half square mile, said military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara.

The fate of rebel chief Prabhakaran is still in question. Some reports said the military had recovered a body thought to be his and is awaiting confirmation.

The elusive leader had vowed never to surrender and carries a cyanide capsule around his neck to commit suicide to avoid being taken alive.

Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka's human rights minister, said that 63,000 people had escaped the war zone in the past three days and were now being "looked after by the government." The latest estimate raises the total number of civilians who fled the area since January to nearly 250,000.

The Tigers' Mr. Pathmanathan countered that the bodies of 3,000 people lay scattered on the ground, in addition to the 25,000 more who are wounded.

Neither side's claims could be independently verified since the government has barred most journalists and aid workers from entering the war zone.

Sri Lankan government officials had repeatedly said the war was already over before the Tigers' announcement Sunday. After a string of battlefield successes, the end had seemed inevitable for weeks.

On Saturday, government forces reclaimed the island's entire coastline for the first time since fighting broke out, effectively cutting off any escape by sea for the rebels. The military said some had tried to sneak away over the weekend on boats, disguised as civilians, only to be stopped by government troops.

The Tamil Tigers, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, began as a guerrilla movement in 1983 to fight for a separate homeland on behalf of an ethnic-Tamil minority marginalized by the Sinhalese majority.

Over the years, the Tigers -- led by founder Prabhakaran's ruthless example -- gained a fearsome reputation for violence that included coordinated bomb strikes, assassinations and the pioneering of suicide attacks.

The U.S., European Union and India listed the group as a terrorist organization.

In 1991, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tiger suicide bomber, a tactic that the Tigers have used hundreds of times. Two years later, a Tiger suicide bomber killed Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa during a political rally.

A truce mediated by Norway in 2002 brought a temporary halt to hostilities, but broke down three years later after the Tigers and the military committed numerous cease-fire violations and the Tigers withdrew from peace talks.

In 2005, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected on a hard-line platform, vowing to crush the rebels with an "all-out" offensive that has since evicted them from traditional strongholds in the north and east.

A series of high-level defections and a worldwide dragnet on Tiger fundraising accelerated their losses.

"We remain with one last choice -- to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people," Mr. Pathmanathan said in his latest statement, adding that the war had reached "its bitter end."

In an interview with Britain's Channel 4 news, he insisted that Prabhakaran was still alive inside the war zone with several hundred fighters, unwilling to surrender as government forces closed in.

Having proclaimed the Tigers' defeat Saturday during a visit to Jordan, Mr. Rajapaksa returned Sunday to the capital, Colombo, where streets where thronged with flag-waving revelers celebrating to the crack of fireworks.

He is expected to formally declare the war over in a special parliament session Tuesday.

But the victory is overshadowed by accusations that the military is guilty of killing thousands of Tamil civilians in the northern war zone, described by the International Committee of the Red Cross as "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe."

On May 10, a government doctor said that artillery fire killed at least 378 civilians and wounded more than 1,100 in a single day. In all, the United Nations estimates more than 6,500 civilians have died this year.

The U.N. human rights chief Friday expressed support for an inquiry into possible war crimes and other rights violations. A host of European countries and the United States have also threatened to delay a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund loan needed to help revive the economy that was once one of South Asia's most robust.

Years of conflict have sapped foreign-exchange reserves, export revenues and led to a balance-of-payments crisis that has caused the value of the national currency to plummet.

Now, officials are banking that a resurgence of tourism will in part drive the economic recovery.

But analysts agree that even with the Tigers destroyed as a conventional fighting force, they could return to their guerrilla roots and sow fear with suicide bombings and random attacks unless the Sri Lankan government seriously addresses the Tamils' enduring social and political grievances.

Good faith is already in doubt as thousands of displaced families continue to be corralled into state-run camps ringed by barbed wire. Aid groups on the ground say sickness is rife and food, medicine and support staff are lacking.

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues