Tamil leaders 'killed as they tried to surrender'

Text messages sent by Sri Lankan officials told the rebels how to give themselves up. They obeyed the instructions – but were shot dead. Andrew Buncombe reports from Colombo

The desperate efforts of two senior LTTE leaders trapped in the war zone to save their lives were revealed yesterday as it emerged they were shot dead as they prepared to surrender to Sri Lankan government forces.

In a flurry of emails, text messages and telephone calls that passed between NGOs, a foreign government and Sri Lankan officials in Colombo, the two LTTE political leaders frantically inquired as to how they could give themselves up.

They were told: "Get a piece of white cloth, put up your hands and walk towards the other side in a non-threatening manner."

But the attempt to surrender by Balasingham Nadesan, head of the LTTE's wing, and Seevaratnam Pulidevan, who led the rebels' peace secretariat, failed. Sometime between midnight on 17 May and the early hours of the next morning, the two men were shot dead. LTTE officials overseas claim the two men were killed by government troops as they approached them bearing a white flag. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government has suggested the two men may have been shot dead by LTTE fighters, angry at them fleeing the conflict zone.

The row over the circumstances surrounding the killing of the men came as Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, told the parliament that the country had been "liberated from separatist terror". "Our intention was to save the Tamil people from the cruel grip of the [rebels]. We all must now live as equals in this free country," he said.

As Mr Rajapaksa spoke, state television broadcast images of the body of rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was killed by government forces on Monday morning. The bloated body of the LTTE leader was shown dressed in a camouflage uniform and lying on a stretcher. A piece of blue cloth had been placed on his head, apparently to cover a bullet wound. "A few hours ago, the body of terrorist leader Prabhakaran, who ruined this country, was found on the battleground," said army chief General Sarath Fonseka.

But while Mr Prabhakaran – the man who always vowed to take his own life rather than surrender – opted to fight to the death with the last of his forces, some of the so-called "civil members" of the LTTE would have preferred to have lived to fight another day. Over the weekend, Mr Nadesan and Mr Pulidevan sent out messages, indicating that they wished to surrender to a third party – namely the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only aid organisation with access to the conflict zone.

The chief intermediary for the two men was the Norwegian government's Environment Minister Erik Solheim, who led efforts to broker a ceasefire between in 2002. On Sunday 17 May, Mr Solheim apparently received calls from LTTE figures who said they wanted to surrender.

Trine Eskedal, a spokeswoman for the ministry of foreign affairs in Oslo, said: "The minister said he spoke with Mr Pulidevan at midnight, who gave him the message that the political leaders wanted to surrender [to the ICRC]. At the time he could hear gunshots in the background." She said that an official, then contacted both the ICRC and the Sri Lankan government.

The ICRC confirmed last night that it had received word from the Norwegians that the two leaders were looking to give themselves up. "The ICRC was approached on this matter by the representatives of the LTTE as well as the Norwegian authorities," said spokeswoman Sarsai Wijeratne. "The information was referred to the Sri Lankan authorities. We have no idea what happened [then]. We lost contact with everyone in the last conflict."

The government's point man in the negotiations appears to have been foreign secretary Palitha Kohona. He said that in the days leading up to Sunday evening, he had received a number of messages indicating that Mr Nadesan and Mr Pulidevan – whom he has met at various peace talks – wanted a way out. It is understood that a number of these messages were delivered from a European NGO with a history of working in northern Sri Lanka.

In an interview in his office in the foreign ministry's oceanfront building, Mr Kohona said that his response had been that "there was only one way to surrender that is recognised by military practice". He said they should obtain a white flag and give themselves up. "I kept saying this for three days," he added.

Mr Kohona produced a text message stored on his phone which he had sent to the NGO at 8.46am on Sunday, 16 hours before the Norwegian minister had his final conversation with the LTTE leaders. The message – in response to a question from the NGO as to whether the two political leaders would be safe if they gave themselves up – read: "Just walk across to the troops, slowly! With a white flag and comply with instructions carefully. The soldiers are nervous about suicide bombers."

The pro-LTTE website TamilNet yesterday reported claims from rebel officials outside Sri Lanka that Mr Nadesan and Mr Pulidevan had been shot dead by government troops as they advanced towards them carrying a white flag, as they had been instructed to do. The report claimed informed sources said what happened in the early hours of Monday was "a well-planned massacre of several unarmed civil officers of the LTTE with the aim of annihilating its political structure".

Experts say that shooting someone trying to surrender was a war crime. ICRC director of operations Pierre Krähenbühl, told reporters: "Under international humanitarian law, all those who are not or are no longer fighting must be spared. The wounded and sick must be cared for immediately and captives must be treated humanely."

But Mr Kohona said he had been told by troops present at the time that they understood the two men had been shot by LTTE cadres who learned of their attempt to escape. "This is consistent with their behaviour," he added.

What is clear is that the situation inside the war zone had become increasingly desperate on Sunday. During the day, squeezed into a strip of land measuring just a few hundred square metres, the remaining LTTE fighters tried to lay down their arms to secure a ceasefire. This was rejected by the government and later some of the rebels attempted a series of suicide attacks on the advancing troops. "This battle has reached its bitter end," a senior rebel spokesman, Selvarajah Pathmanathan.

It was in these circumstances that the two political leaders – trapped, hopeless and with no other options – made their final desperate attempt to save their lives. The Norwegian minister, Mr Solheim, said he had spoken with Mr Pulidevan and later gone to bed. "The next morning I heard they were dead," he said.

On Monday, as news emerged that the last of the LTTE had been killed, the EU called for an independent investigation into alleged violations of human rights law in Sri Lanka's war.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam