COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lankan troops won the final battle in a separatist conflict seen as one of the world’s most intractable wars, and put the island nation under government control for the first time since 1983, the military said.
In the climactic final gun battle, 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.
LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Amman and Soosai, head of the “Sea Tiger” naval wing, were also believed killed, the report said. Prabhakaran founded the LTTE on a culture of suicide before surrender, and had sworn he would never be taken alive.
Army commander Lt-Gen. Sarath Fonseka said troops on Monday morning had finished the task given to them by President Mahinda Rajapaksa three years ago.
“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.
The end of combat and Prabhakaran’s death sent the currency and stock markets to one-month and seven-month highs respectively by 0900 GMT (5:00 a.m. EDT). They had already surged at the opening in anticipation of the war’s end.
Rajapaksa declared victory on Saturday, even as the final battle in Asia’s longest modern war was intensifying.
The final fight 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 and surrounded themselves with land mines and booby traps.
The LTTE on Sunday conceded defeat in a 25-year civil war, after a relentless Sri Lankan military offensive that retook the 15,000 sq km the rebels ran as a separate state when a 2002 truce began falling apart three years ago.
The official Media Center for National Security said more than 250 Tigers had been killed in the final battle, which intensified on Saturday after the military said it had freed the last of 72,000 civilians trapped in the tiny war zone.
News of the Tiger chief’s death came as state TV for the first time broadcast images of the body of his son and heir apparent, Charles Anthony, and other dead rebels.
He was killed overnight, the military said, along with a host of other top LTTE fighters and political cadres, including political chief B. Nadesan and spokesman Seevaratnam Puleedevan.
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 Sri Lankan government’s prosecution of the war, and is seen here as sympathetic to the vocal pro-LTTE lobby that has protested outside parliament for weeks in Britain. London has said it backs a war crimes’ probe.
Sri Lanka has been furious that a number of its embassies in foreign capitals have been vandalized by Tamil Tiger backers.
Rajapaksa prorogued parliament on Monday, the required step for him to take the role of speaker and address the body. He was due to make his formal declaration of victory there on Tuesday.
In less than three years, Sri Lanka’s bulked-up military has answered critics who said there was no way to defeat the LTTE, which had carefully crafted an aura of military invincibility.
The LTTE at the height of its power had run a de facto state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority that it called Tamil Eelam.
The Tigers collected taxes, ran courts and kept a standing army, naval wing and small air force, even though the government paid for health and education services there.