, COLOMBO, May 18 – Sri Lanka’s military declared a final victory on Monday in its decades-old conflict with the Tamil Tigers, after routing the remnants of the rebel army and killing its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The army said its commandos had overrun the last sliver of Tiger territory, killing the last 300 fighters and decimating the rebel leadership. It said Prabhakaran and two deputies tried to flee in a van, but were shot dead.
"All military operations have come to a stop," army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka announced.
”Now the entire country is declared rid of terrorism," Fonseka said, adding the "dead bodies of terrorists are scattered over the last ditch."
His statement marked the end of one of Asia’s oldest and most brutal ethnic conflicts which left more than 70,000 dead from pitched battles, suicide attacks, bomb strikes and assassinations.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (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.
Officials said all rebel leaders were now dead.
A senior defence ministry official told AFP that Prabhakaran and his two deputies had tried to flee advancing troops in an ambulance and another van but were ambushed by commandos.
"He was killed with two others inside the vehicle," the official said.
State television and the office of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse confirmed the news, and a formal announcement of his death was expected to be made at 1230 GMT.
The defence ministry said troops also killed Prabhakaran’s deputies — Sea Tiger leader Colonel Soosai and LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Amman.
Also killed were the rebel leader’s 24-year-old son Charles Anthony, the group’s political wing leader B. Nadesan, and the head of the LTTE’s defunct Peace Secretariat, S. Pulideevan.
The pro-rebel Tamilnet website said the LTTE leadership had appealed to the Red Cross to be evacuated, and that "initial reports indicate a determined massacre by the Sri Lanka Army."
In a dramatic announcement, the Tamil guerrillas had acknowledged Sunday that their battle for an independent ethnic homeland had reached its "bitter end" — signalling Asia’s longest running civil war was all but over.
The separatist rebels were once one of the world’s most feared guerrilla armies, and ran a de facto mini-state spanning a third of the island before the government began a major offensive two years ago.
A last gasp appeal for peace talks — rather than a surrender — was flatly rejected by the government, and the defence ministry sent in troops with a brief to capture "every inch of land" for the first time in decades of war.
Rajapakse will open a new session of parliament Tuesday with an address that will officially mark the end of the war.
The capital Colombo, which has been frequently hit by Tiger suicide attacks over the past quarter century, saw street celebrations — with residents setting off firecrackers and waving flags.
"This is a victory against terrorism. I am very proud of our forces, of what they have done," said Ashani de Silva, a Colombo student, as national flags were put up over shops, homes, offices and cars.
Victory euphoria also gripped Sri Lanka’s stock exchange, with the main index jumping 6.45 percent.
Authorities had been determined to capture, kill or recover Prabhakaran’s body amid fears his escape could have led to an attempt to rebuild the LTTE and usher in a new cycle of violence.
The Sri Lankan government’s moment of triumph has also come at the cost of thousands of innocent lives lost in indiscriminate shelling, according to the United Nations. The UN’s rights body now wants a war crimes probe.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only neutral organisation that has been allowed to work in the war zone, has for its part described "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe."
The European Union on Monday also called for an independent enquiry into alleged human rights violations, saying it was "appalled by the loss of innocent civilian lives as a result of the conflict and by the high numbers of casualties, including children."
The estimated 250,000 people displaced by the war are being moved into state-run "welfare villages" — camps ringed by barbed wire and another source of international alarm.
Rights workers, aid groups and journalists are also being denied free access to the north.