Tamil Tigers Chief Prabhakaran Reportedly Killed, Effectively Ending Sri Lanka War
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 18 -- One of the world's most ruthless and elusive rebel leaders, Tamil Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, was reportedly killed Monday by Sri Lanka's military in a firefight that signaled the effective end to one of Asia's longest-running military conflicts.
It was a day many Sri Lankans thought would never come, after more than a quarter-century of sporadic fighting, cease-fires and failed negotiations. Top military commanders bearing bouquets of flowers met the country's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his living room to deliver the news that the war was over. The Tamil Tigers, who had been fighting for a separate Tamil homeland, were officially defeated, they said, and the entire island for the first time in nearly 30 years was under one flag.
"We can announce very responsibly that we have liberated the whole country from terrorism," Sri Lanka's army chief, Lt. Gen. Sareth Fonseka, said on television, as rickshaw drivers honking in celebration passed dozens of sandbagged checkpoints in central Colombo where normally serious soldiers in flak jackets smiled their approval. Some women cooked or purchased rice and handed out small congratulatory packets to euphoric soldiers.
By dusk, a group of children in one neighborhood had raised a scarecrow-like effigy of Prabhakaran, who was vilified as a despot across much of southern Sri Lanka. Young girls danced and cheered his death, as hundreds of adults lined the road, clapping and waving the country's flag of a sword-wielding lion.
After a two-hour firefight, officials said, Prabhakaran was shot along with two commanders from his inner circle: Tiger intelligence chief Pottu Amman and Soosai, the head of the "Sea Tiger" naval wing, who used only one name. The three were killed as they were trying to flee the war zone in the country's north in an armored van accompanied by a bus filled with armed rebels. The Sri Lankan government sent cellphone text messages to citizens across the country announcing that Prabhakaran and his deputies had been killed.
"It's the end of an era," said M.R. Narayan Swamy, author of an unofficial biography of the rebel leader, who said the Tamil Tigers, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, are "finished . . . shattered beyond recognition."
The government requested that shops and homes hoist the country's flag for one week as a show of unity and national pride in a country that has been splintered by conflict between the country's ethnic Tamil, mainly Hindu, minority and its Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
But the war's end -- if it truly is the end -- opens up new questions in a nation where armed conflict between Tamil rebels and mostly Sinhalese government troops has been the defining narrative for more than a generation.
A Tamil rebel Web site, however, reported that Prabhakaran was alive and in hiding. The government has denied such reports and is conducting a DNA test on the body to disprove those claims.
"The end of this war is something that we genuinely didn't think could ever happen," said Rajinda Jayasinghe, 27, a civil society leader who is Sinhalese and works in the northern Tamil aid camps. "With the death of Prabhakaran, the symbol of the divisions between Sri Lankan people is gone. The real question now is, will there be goodwill towards Tamils? Will Tamils feel the government has their best interest in their hearts?"
In Tamil areas of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital and a city with a history of ethnic riots, the change in mood was stark, with streets eerily silent as residents seemed to stay indoors.
Prabhakaran was widely seen by Tamils as their only hope against the discrimination and alleged human rights abuses by the Sinhalese-dominated government.