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Sri Lanka's President Urges Unity

Victory Address Comes Amid Swirl of Rumors That Rebel Leader Is Still Alive

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa delivered a victory address to parliament Tuesday, declaring that his country had been "liberated" from terrorism after defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels on the battlefield. (May 19) Video by AP
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 19 -- In a triumphant address to Parliament on Tuesday, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for national unity following the government's killing of the Tamil Tiger leader who waged an armed movement that violently split this country for a quarter-century.

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But even as the president declared, to rousing applause, that the rebels were finished "forever," new questions surfaced about his nemesis, Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. The nearly mythical aura around the portly rebel leader, who was shot dead by soldiers Monday, has seemed to grow in death as questions lingered about exactly how he -- or even whether -- he died.

Just before Rajapaksa's nationally televised speech, a pro-Tamil Web site claimed that Prabhakaran, 54, was still alive. He continues "to lead the quest for dignity and freedom for the Tamil people," Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the foreign relations head of the Tamil Tigers, said in an interview with the Web site, TamilNet.

Added to contradictory media reports and government statements about the exact circumstances of the killing, the rebel statement contributed to a haze of uncertainty for many in this Indian Ocean nation, which has a long history of political conspiracies and tight controls on the media.

The government moved swiftly to counter rumors that Prabhakaran was still alive. Shortly after the president's speech, and as celebratory fireworks were set off in much of the capital, television stations interrupted programming with gruesome video footage of a body said to be that of Prabhakaran.

The body was bloated and dressed in the Tamil Tiger battle fatigues. It had Prabhakaran's distinctive mustache. A blue towel covered what remained of the skull. The army showed his dog tag with the marking "0:01."

Sri Lankan authorities' display of Prabhakaran's identification tags had the unintended result of creating even more doubt among many in the Tamil community. Some Tamils doubt that a man known for his paranoid secrecy and alleged cadre of body doubles would carry identification.

Forensic experts in Sri Lanka are conducting a DNA test to confirm that the body is Prabhakaran's. DNA testing takes 24 hours once the technicians start working on the sample. India also requested tissue samples from the body for its own DNA test, because Prabhakaran is wanted there for his role in the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Gandhi was slain when a woman with explosives blew up while pretending to touch his feet.

In the meantime, Rajapaksa sent Prabhakaran's former second-in-command, Karuna Amman, who defected to the government five years ago, to identify his former boss.

"I spent 20 years with the man, I know him," Karuna, who flew to the country's north Tuesday by special military escort, said in an interview. "There is no doubt that it is Prabhakaran. He is dead."

Karuna, who is now a federal government minister, added: "Though I am saddened that he is no more, the fact is he never listened to anyone. He always believed that violence is the only solution."

Sri Lanka's strict control on media and information has also fueled the conspiracy theories. Authorities have banned journalists from the combat zone in the north where government troops mounted their last major offensive against the rebels and from refugee camps where hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians are living.

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