Sri Lankan president declares war ‘victory’

A crowd beside a portrait of Sri Lanka's president celebrate the country's military victory on May 18.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, flashing a broad smile, declared victory Tuesday in the country’s 25-year civil war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

“We are celebrating the defeat of terrorism,” he said in a nationally televised speech before parliament. “We have won and restored democracy in the country.” Rajapaksa announced that Wednesday would be a national holiday, to celebrate the end of a war that has led to an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 deaths. Meanwhile, a rebel Web site said Tuesday that Tamil Tiger founder and leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is “alive and safe.” The report came a day after the government claimed to have killed him during fighting in the country’s north. The Sri Lankan military also said Monday that it had killed three top leaders of the Tamil Tigers and Prabhakaran’s son, Charles Anthony. “Our beloved leader Velupillai [Prabhakaran] is alive and safe,” rebel spokesman Selvarasa Pathmanathan said, according to “He will continue to lead the quest for dignity and freedom for the Tamil people.” CNN has been unable to independently confirm the accounts because of access and safety reasons. Prabhakaran was one of 19 senior LTTE leaders that the government has identified among the bodies found as its troops completed mop-up operations after routing the Tigers, the defense ministry said. The leaders included Prabhakaran’s eldest son, Charles Anthony, as well as Pottu Amman, LTTE’s intelligence leader, according to the ministry. Prabhakaran founded the rebel group, which has been declared a terrorist organization by 32 countries. It pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks and, according to the FBI, invented the explosive suicide belt. It was also behind the assassination of two world leaders — the only terrorist organization to do so.

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Prabhakaran is accused of masterminding the killing of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 in the Tamil-dominated Indian state of Tami Nadu as he campaigned for a second term. Sri Lankan authorities allege that Prabhakaran was avenging Gandhi’s decision to send Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka. Two years later a Tigers suicide bomber, allegedly acting under Prabhakaran’s orders, detonated explosives that killed Sri Lanka’s then-president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, during a rally. Over the weekend, the militants offered to “silence” their guns after an intense military offensive decimated their ranks, pushed them from their stronghold in the north and east of the country, and cornered the remaining rebels on a small stretch of land. Watch aid agencies fear for Sri Lanka » Prabhakaran’s supporters considered him a hero with a single-minded focus — to fight for the rights of his people. The Sri Lankan government deemed him a war criminal with a disregard for civilian casualties. He was wanted by Interpol on charges including terrorism and organized crime.

In the past it has been reported he wore a cyanide capsule around his neck — to swallow and kill himself rather than risk capture. And he reportedly expected the same dedication from his troops. As a result, few Tigers have been captured alive. The rebels have fought for an independent state for minority Tamils in Sri Lanka since July 1983.