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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.