, COLOMBO, May 19 – Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse announced the final defeat of the Tamil Tigers, even as the rebels insisted their leader was still alive and vowed to fight on for a Tamil homeland.
In an address to parliament, Rajapakse said the government now controlled all the island’s territory and had rid the nation of "terrorism" with the crushing of the rebels on Monday.
"The writ of the state now runs across every inch of our territory," Rajapakse said in the nationally televised address. "We have completely defeated terrorism."
But the Tamil Tigers denied that Velupillai Prabhakaran had been killed in the final battle, which the government announced on Monday.
"Our beloved leader is alive and safe. He will continue to lead the quest for dignity and freedom for the Tamil people," the rebels’ international relations chief Selvarasa Pathmanathan said in a statement on the pro-rebel Tamilnet website.
The Sri Lankan military said Monday that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader had been shot dead with two of his top commanders as they attempted to flee advancing troops.
But Pathmanathan said the government had fabricated the news in order to "gloat" following its military victory.
"We categorically reject this," he said, without making any claim to Prabhakaran’s current whereabouts.
"The Tamil freedom struggle is a just cause and will not be quashed by the events of the last 24 hours. Truth and justice will always prevail," he said.
Pathmanathan went on to accuse the government and military of "crimes against humanity," saying senior LTTE leaders had been shot dead after being invited to negotiate a surrender.
The conflicting accounts of Prabhakaran’s fate came after a dramatic day that saw Sri Lanka’s military declare final victory in one of Asia’s oldest and most brutal ethnic conflicts.
The army said its commandos overran the last sliver of Tiger-held territory, killing their remaining 300 fighters and decimating the rebel leadership.
The LTTE emerged in the 1970s, with all-out war breaking out in the early 1980s as they pursued their struggle for an independent Tamil homeland on the Sinhalese-majority island.
More than 70,000 died in the conflict, in everything from pitched battles to suicide attacks, bombings and assassinations.
The Sri Lankan government’s moment of triumph came at the cost of thousands of innocent lives, according to the United Nations. The UN and human rights groups have partly blamed indiscriminate military shelling.
The European Union on Monday called for an independent enquiry into alleged human rights violations, while the Red Cross complained it was unable to reach the wounded in the north-eastern conflict zone even after victory was declared.
UN relief agencies also said that access to some government-run camps housing tens of thousands of displaced civilians had been restricted in recent days and demanded that the camps be "demilitarised."
In a statement, EU foreign ministers said the European Union was "appalled by the loss of innocent civilian lives" and called for a "comprehensive political process" to address the grievances of the island’s Tamil minority.
In his speech to parliament, Rajapakse made an appeal for national unity and said that the crushing of the LTTE should be seen as a victory for the entire nation and not a defeat for the Tamil community.
"We have demonstrated that we can solve our problems and we will come up with a home-grown political solution," the president said.
He said the country would seek international aid to rebuild the island’s war-devastated northern and eastern provinces.
"What we need from the international community is not advice, but material help to carry out our reconstruction effort," he said.