Besieged Tamil leader's life ends in a blaze of gunfire

Three decades of civil war in Sri Lanka came to a bloody end today as Sinhalese troops killed rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran as he made a desperate attempt to blast his way in a vehicle through government lines encircling the last tiny patch of land held by his forces. Celebrations broke out across the country after the government announced his death and the end of fighting.

The rebel commander was reportedly killed along with several senior deputies as they made a final, desperate charge towards advancing government forces. His son, Charles Anthony - previously identified as a possible successor - was also reported to be dead and an image of his corpse was broadcast on television.

Army leader Lt Gen Sareth Fonseka, said that a body, believed to be that of Mr Prabhakaran had been removed from the battlefield and officials were now working to identify it. Some of the bodies may have been burned. “We can announce very responsibly that we have liberated the whole country from terrorism. We have gained full control of LTTE-held areas,” he told state television. “Today we finished the work handed to us by the president to liberate the country from the LTTE.” The government information department also sent a text message to cell phones across the country announcing Mr Prabhakaran's death.

If confirmed, the death of the rebel leader and the destruction of the last of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who had been holed-up in a tiny patch of land in the north east of Sri Lanka, marks the conclusion of a long chapter of the rebels' struggle. It may even mark the end of the conflict: while the LTTE has said that even if it were beaten conventionally it would return to its guerilla roots, some experts have speculated that without its leadership the rebels could struggle to regroup.

Professor Jonathan Spencer, a South Asia expert at Edinburgh University, said “There has been some LTTE activity in the east and in the south-east of the country but I think the killing of the leadership is very significant because so much has been based on the cult of the leaders. It remains to be seen whether the rebels can be self-sustaining without the leadership.”

Senior military officials in Colombo said that 54-year-old Mr Prabhakaran, almost always photographed with a Browning pistol, was killed after he and his remaining fighters were surrounded early on Monday morning. They said the commander and two top deputies, Soosai, who headed the rebel's naval operation, and Pottu Amman, got into an armour-plated van and, accompanied by a bus van of fighters, and drove towards the approaching government forces. A two-hour firefight then ensued. Other reports said the Mr Prabhakaran was in an ambulance trying to escape.

Either way, officials said that the battle was concluded when troops fired a rocket at the van. The rebels leader's body was then pulled from the vehicle and it was identified by troops. In all, up to 250 LTTE soldiers were killed, the military said.

The killing of the last of the LTTE fighters and their leader came a day after the government said the last of hundreds of thousands of civilians had escaped from the conflict zone and the rebels conceded defeat. Anywhere up to 300,000 civilians are now interned in hastily constructed refugee camps, patrolled by armed soldiers and surrounded by razor wire. It is expected they could be held in the camps for more than a year.

It is understood that the body of Mr Prabhakaran's son was discovered overnight with those of several other senior LTTE figures, including political chief Balasingham Nadesan and spokesman Seevaratnam Puleedevan. It is not known whether the leaders had taken their own lives by biting on cyanide capsules, reportedly worn around their necks, or whether they were killed by the army

Despite his position as head of the one of the world's longest-running rebel movements, surprisingly little is known about Mr Prabhakaran. It is known he became politically radicalized as a teenager by what he considered institutional discrimination against the country's Tamil minority.

In 1975 he was accused of being involved in the murder of the mayor of Jaffna, which happened as the Tamil protest movement was growing. The killing was one of the first carried out by the movement and around that time Mr Prabhakaran began establishing the LTTE. He was also accused of personally ordering the 1991 assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, apparently in revenge for hid decision to deploy Indian peace-keeping troops to Sri Lanka in the mid 1980s.

Yet in 2002, it appears that he threw away an opportunity for a de facto Tamil homeland. During peace talks with the government he rejected a deal that would have given the LTTE control over a large part of the north and east of the country but not true independence from Sri Lanka. He said he could not accept it if it were not complete independence.

The battle to crush the LTTE has been fought on a small coastal strip in the north east of the country, largely out of sight of the outside world. The government has denied journalists and all aid workers apartment from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Some reports did emerge, mostly from three government-employed doctors who worked in a makeshift hospital in the war zone and who provided journalists with information about conditions for the thousands of trapped civilians and reports - always denied by the government - that the army had been shelling the clinic. Yesterday all three doctors were detained and accused of feeding false information to the media.

The rout of the rebels came in the face of widespread international calls for a ceasefire to allow the evacuation of civilians. All such calls were rejected by the government which said a ceasefire would simply give more time for the rebels to build-up their defences.

Yesterday, in an incident that underlined the public and official anger at the international criticism of Sri Lanka's policies, around 1,000 demonstrators threw stones at the British High Commission and set fire to an effigy of Foreign Secretary David Miliband who recently visited. A spokesman for the High Commission said they were “outraged that the authorities allowed the demonstration to become so violent”.

Last night, the EU was due to demand an independent inquiry into alleged violations of humanitarian and human rights law during the recent conflict and to call for those responsible to be brought to justice. They were also expected to demand an end to the restrictions on access to the refugees by aid agencies.

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