Firecrackers exploded around Colombo on Monday as Sri Lankans celebrated what they hoped would be the end to a civil war that has plagued the nation since 1983. At 1:40PM in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s government radio made the official announcement that Velupillai Prabhakaran, the elusive leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam , was killed early this morning by special forces in the island’s northern Karayamullavaikkal area. The 54-year-old Prabhakaran, who has been heading the Tamil separatist movement for 33 years, had been trying flee the shrinking 100m by 100m pocket of land still under the Tiger control in an ambulance when troops intercepted the vehicle, shooting those inside.
Two of Prabhakaran’s trusted lieutenants intelligence head Pottu Amman and Sea Tiger leader Soosai were also killed in the ambush. “LTTE terrorists made their final bid to evacuate its leaders early this morning as army elites pierced in to the last remaining LTTE foothold last night,” the Defence Ministry said in a statement later in the day. “The terrorists managed to take hold of two vehicles and believed to have put their senior leaders into those vehicles before they started moving northwards.”
The Tigers were cornered into the narrow patch on Sunday after President Mahinda Rajapaksa had announced the day before that the Tigers were a spent force. “We are not after any person or any personal agenda. We want to rid this country of terrorism, that is why we went after the LTTE leadership,” Lakshman Hulugalle, the Director General of the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry’s Media Centre for National Security told TIME. “With the leadership wiped out, this organisation can not remerge.” Army Commander Lt Sareth Fonseka also said that Prabhakaran’s death marked the end of the LTTE led separatist war. “We have rid the country of terrorism,” he told national television soon after the official announcement of Prabhakaran’s death aired.
Hours before Prabhakaran’s death was announced, the Defence Ministry declared that at least six top Tiger leaders had been killed in fighting in the early morning hours, including Prabhakaran’s 24-year-old son Charles Anthony. All of the leaders, including Prabhakaran, appeared to fleeing in the same two vehicle convoy. The entire country had been decked in the Sri Lankan national flag since Sunday, anticipating the final victiory over the Tigers. President Rajapaksa is due to address the nation from parliament on Tuesday.
Pro-Tiger websites had reported that the Tiger leaders had contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross on Sunday morning to inform the aid group that only some 1000 people remained in the narrow area under Tiger control, including the Tiger leadership, cadres, non-military LTTE members and injured cadres. The pro-Tiger site Tamil net was reporting that LTTE leadership told the ICRC that “there was no firing from the LTTE side” and “urged the ICRC to evacuate the wounded.” Both the leaders mentioned in the report were later killed by government forces.
The ICRC Colombo office said that they had no information of any such communication. Military sources told TIME that the Tigers were also suspected to be talking with a European nation and the UN for to surrender to a third party. “We gave them so many chances to surrender. The President kept repeating this,” Hulugalle told TIME. “They waited this long. They caused so much of death and damage. They exhausted any chance of any surrender.”
What’s next for the Tigers Even the government has raised the possibility of the remnants of the LTTE re-grouping into a diffuse guerrilla movement. But without their top leadership, a personality-driven movement such as the LTTE is unlikely to last long. The movement could also continue in some form in the Tamil diaspora, although its reason for being the creation of a Tamil homeland, or eelam is essentially destroyed. The leadership of whatever that remains of the Tigers, mainly its international network, is likely to be assumed by Selvarasa Pathmanathan, who now heads the global operations but was better known as the Tiger’s chief arms procrument agent. Prabhakaran is believed to have given some instructions to LTTE representatives in Malaysia and elsewhere, but it is unclear what his intentions were.
See TIME’s pictures of the week.