Tamil Tiger Rebels Admit Defeat in Sri Lanka, Vow to Silence Guns

A man in Colombo, the capital, waves the Sri Lankan flag -- though upside-down -- in celebration after the impending defeat of the rebels was announced.
A man in Colombo, the capital, waves the Sri Lankan flag -- though upside-down -- in celebration after the impending defeat of the rebels was announced. (David Gray - Reuters)

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 18, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 17 -- Cornered into a tiny patch of jungle about the size of a football field, the Tamil Tiger rebels -- who once operated a shadow state complete with a law school, a tax system, a navy and even traffic police -- vowed Sunday to lay down their weapons for good, in a stunning and unprecedented admission of defeat in Asia's longest-running war.

"This battle has reached its bitter end. It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them," Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the Tigers' chief of international relations, said in a statement posted on the TamilNet Web site. "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."

President Mahinda Rajapaksa scheduled a news conference for Tuesday morning in Parliament. He is expected to make an official declaration of victory over the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Sri Lanka's military vowed to recapture "every inch of land" and refused to relent in its assault on the rebels. The assault continued Sunday despite calls from President Obama and the United Nations, with both expressing concern for tens of thousands of civilians -- some reportedly huddled in trenches with little water or food.

Although Sri Lanka's military announced Sunday that all civilians who had been trapped in the country's northern war zone -- an estimated 63,000 -- had escaped, journalists are barred from the war zone, and the situation there could not be independently verified.

Sri Lanka's violent struggles attracted worldwide attention over the years from human rights activists and world leaders. Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday that he was praying for peace and reconciliation. He asked humanitarian groups to do everything possible to care for terrified civilians in Sri Lanka. "There are thousands of children, women, old people for whom the war has taken years of their lives and hope," Benedict said at the Vatican.

In Washington, Sri Lankan Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya credited Obama's recent public statements with helping to end the crisis. In an e-mailed statement, he said the Tigers "effectively folded shortly after President Barack Obama told the world that the terrorists were holding innocent Tamil civilians as hostages. He was one of the few world leaders to note that fact so forcefully."

In this deeply divided Indian Ocean island nation, many said the war will not really be resolved until the capture or death of the Tamil Tigers' elusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Some here call him "Sri Lanka's Osama bin Laden," for his leadership of a violent movement and for the government's inability to find his hiding place.

Under the rebel commander, the Tigers became one of the world's most deadly guerrilla armies, labeled as a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries for hundreds of suicide attacks on soldiers and civilians. The Tigers invented the suicide belt and pioneered the use of suicide bombing.

"Prabhakaran's on the run. He's in hiding. He's facing real danger as we speak. The next few days will decide his fate," said M.R. Narayan Swamy, author of an unofficial biography of the rebel leader. "He will have to commit suicide, because being captured would be the ultimate humiliation. The third scenario is death at the hands of the enemy, which would propel him as a hero in the eyes of those who consider him as an icon."

Prabhakaran allegedly orchestrated suicide bombings that killed a Sri Lankan president, six cabinet ministers and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. He trained an elite squad of suicide bombers, the Black Tigers, and was infamous for hosting elaborate feasts for his recruits before sending them to their death.

The assassination of Gandhi was apparently to punish India for its military intervention in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. But Gandhi's death ended any sympathy the international community had for the Tigers.

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