Home » News

Rebels Routed in Sri Lanka After 25 Years of War

[NYTimes, Monday, 18 May 2009 06:53 No Comment]

The Tamil Tigers, one of the world’s most feared and enduring guerrilla movements, acknowledged that their 26-year struggle for a homeland had “reached its bitter end,” and the Sri Lankan president said he would address Parliament on Tuesday morning in what was expected to be a formal declaration of victory in Asia’s longest-running civil war.

The effective surrender by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam came Sunday, as the Sri Lankan military said it was conducting “mop-up operations” on a small strand of beachfront, the final redoubt of a dwindling core of separatist rebel fighters.

The military reported it had killed six senior L.T.T.E. leaders on Monday, including the head of the movement’s political wing, and soldiers also found a body they believed to be that of Charles Anthony, the older of the two sons of the elusive rebel chief, Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

It was not possible to verify whether the men had been killed in last-ditch fighting or had taken their own lives using the cyanide capsules that some rebels have worn in glass ampules around their necks.

The military also said Monday the combat zone had been reduced to about half a square mile.Confirmation of the government’s claims has been impossible because the military has barred independent journalists, along with most aid agencies and human rights monitors, from the battle zone and refugee-settlement areas. Several journalists, including some from The New York Times, have been prohibited from entering the country, and one who flew late Sunday to Colombo, the capital, was immediately ordered to leave on a return flight.

The end of conventional fighting does not, however, eliminate the possibility of future guerrilla strikes: The Tamil Tigers have long been known for having perfected the murderous art of suicide bombing. And the statement by their spokesman, Selvarasa Pathmanathan, posted on the pro-rebel Web site, TamilNet, pointed to the group’s “fearless and unending commitment to this cause.”

“This battle has reached its bitter end,” Mr. Pathmanathan said. “We have decided to silence our guns.” The statement made no direct mention of surrender and did not concede defeat, but the acknowledgment of finality suggested that the rebels knew the war was over.

Daily dispatches from rebel sources inside the war zone and posted on TamilNet appeared to have stopped on Monday.

The Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, said on Saturday, during a trip to Jordan, that the rebels had been “finally defeated.”

“I will be going back to a country,” he said, “that has been totally freed from the barbaric acts of the L.T.T.E.” The president returned to Sri Lanka on Sunday.

International concern has grown in recent weeks over tens of thousands of civilians who were trapped along with rebel fighters in the ever-shrinking war zone. But the government said Sunday that all civilians had escaped from the zone. The Tamil Tigers said 3,000 had been killed in the preceding 24 hours, compelling the rebels to halt fighting.

There is no doubt that Mr. Rajapaksa’s government appears poised to achieve what none of his predecessors managed in 25 years: to rout the Tamil Tigers, who controlled nearly a fourth of the island, and destroy their ranks as a conventional army.

As the war’s climax approached, both sides had rebuffed repeated calls from the United Nations and several foreign countries to spare civilians caught in the war zone. The United Nations estimates that at least 7,000 have died since January.

The government has been pressed to stop shelling known civilian sites, including hospitals. The rebels have been accused of holding their own people hostage. No amount of international pressure has worked, not even appeals from Sri Lanka’s powerful neighbor, India, where Tamil refugees have trickled in, many of them on flimsy fishing boats.

One of the senior rebels reportedly killed Monday was Balasingham Nadesan, head of the L.T.T.E. political wing, but the whereabouts of Mr. Prabhakaran, the rebel chief, were unknown. Recent statements from military officials have indicated they believed he was still among the holdouts inside the war zone.

Even if the Tamil Tigers have been effectively neutralized, the government will still face the challenge of engaging in serious negotiations on power-sharing with the island’s Tamil minority.

Since early this year, the remnants of the rebel force have been cornered in a tiny enclave on the coastline, and human rights groups say both sides have fought with a disregard for large-scale casualties among civilians trapped there.

The rebels once ran their own police force and court system, collected taxes and erected monuments to fallen fighters. A 2002 cease-fire held out promise of a negotiated settlement, but the Tamil Tigers dragged out the talks, and almost immediately after Mr. Rajapaksa’s election three years ago, they began provoking his government by ambushing the military.

Their suicide bombers unsuccessfully attacked the army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, and then Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, an American citizen who serves as the powerful secretary of defense.

With financial support from a Tamil diaspora, the rebels fielded a conventional army with artillery units, a tiny air force and a sizable navy that, according to the Sri Lanka military, even included homemade submarines.

The Tigers were weakened by several factors: a global war on terror that pinched its ability to raise money overseas; a split in their ranks; and what, in hindsight, seem to have been devastating strategic errors on Mr. Prabhakaran’s part, including helping to lift Mahinda Rajapaksa to an election victory.

Mr. Prabhakaran had urged Tamils to boycott the elections three years ago, effectively vaulting Mr. Rajapaksa, who was backed by ethnic Sinhalese nationalists and whose campaign pledge was to end the war, to power.

By that time, a large and important faction of the Tamil Tigers had seceded. It promptly joined the government in pushing Mr. Prabhakaran’s forces from the island’s east. All the while, the Rajapaksa administration managed to amass better weapons, corral political support to quash the Tamil Tigers, crush dissent, and dismiss any international criticism of human rights as pro-rebel propaganda.

[Full Coverage]

(For updates you can share with your friends, follow TNN on Facebook, Twitter and Google+)

Comments are closed.