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Tamil Tigers, rebels who once seemed invincible

[AFP, Sunday, 17 May 2009 11:19 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, who said Sunday they would stop fighting government troops, were once ranked among the world’s most formidable and disciplined rebel outfits.

Just two years ago, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) appeared indestructible, controlling a large swathe of territory in the north of the island with all the trappings of a separate state.

Formed in 1972 by Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers spent more than 30 years confounding expectations of their military defeat, but a sustained offensive by government troops appears to have finally defeated them.

"This battle has reached its bitter end," the Tigers’ chief of international relations, Selvarasa Pathmanathan, said in a statement carried on the pro-rebel Tamilnet website.

"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."

In the fight for a separate Tamil homeland, Prabhakaran, 54, refined the use of suicide bombers who carried out deadly attacks against high-profile targets, including spectacular strikes against economic installations.

Former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a female Tiger suicide bomber in 1991, in retaliation for sending Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka in 1987, who ended up fighting the rebels.

The Tigers were also blamed for the 1993 killing of Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa and the bombing of the central bank which left 90 dead.

They had their own naval unit, the Sea Tigers, and even managed to smuggle in light aircraft and launch the Air Tigers — an air force capable of hitting as far south as the capital and then returning to jungle airstrips unscathed.

In one of their most audacious attacks, the rebels blew up more than a dozen fighter aircraft at a military base just north of Colombo in 2001 and destroyed six passenger airliners parked at the country’s only international airport.

The Tigers have been condemned for their use of suicide bombers and child soldiers, but they had the backing of the international community when Oslo-backed peace talks were under way from 2002.

Those negotiations collapsed and the process ended in January 2008, when President Mahinda Rajapakse pulled out of a moribund truce.

Government forces entered the city of Kilinochchi — the LTTE’s political headquarters — in January after the biggest military offensive in the history of what has become Asia’s longest running ethnic conflict.

In his annual speech in November, Prabakharan vowed to defend his territory and suggested that the rebels would revert to hit-and-run attacks as their area shrank.

Observers partly attribute the LTTE’s spectacular collapse to over-confidence.

"They projected a facade of invincibility," retired army brigadier general Vipul Boteju told AFP late last month.

"They had also underestimated the military, which had learnt from their mistakes in the past," he said.

The rebels also suffered internal problems, with signs of dissent around Prabhakaran — whose de facto number two, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, defected to the government in 2004.

On the international front, the LTTE were outlawed as a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States, European Union, Australia and India.

[Full Coverage]

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