The bitter end: Tamils lay down arms

After 26 years, Sri Lanka claims it has defeated the feared Tamil Tigers, but the tide of refugees driven into internment leaves legacy of hate

It had been talked about for months, its slow inevitability played out against the most savage of backdrops. Last night, on the blood-soaked sand on the north-eastern coast of Sri Lanka, it appeared to have finally happened.

Twenty-six years after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – once the most feared terrorists in the world – launched a brutal war for a separate Tamil homeland, they admitted defeat. Having reportedly launched waves of suicide attacks in an effort to repel a final assault by government troops, the once mighty rebels laid down their arms. The government was examining one of several bodies recovered from the battlefield, tentatively said to be that of the rebels' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who apparently committed suicide with several of his senior commanders as they were surrounded by government troops.

"This battle has reached its bitter end," a senior rebel spokesman, Selvarajah Pathmanathan, said on the pro-Tiger website TamilNet. "It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them. We remain with one last choice – to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns." Denying Prabhakaran's demise later, Pathmanathan insisted that the group's leader was behind the decision to end the war.

Their unilateral ceasefire was rejected by the government, whose forces continued their assault. By yesterday evening, the fighting was said to have slowed, though with journalists and almost all aid workers prevented from reaching the war zone, it was impossible to confirm details. The government said that the last Tigers were boxed into an area measuring just 400m by 600m.

The government claimed that the last civilians being held in the war zone – the UN had estimated on Saturday there were anywhere up to 80,000 – had escaped by lunchtime. What seems certain is that a considerable number have fled the war zone.

"There is still some mopping up – as they call it – going on," said Gordon Weiss, a UN spokesman in Colombo, the capital. "What we do know is that a substantial number of people have managed to leave. The government is saying 72,000. We don't know if they've got everybody out and we probably won't know that for a few days."

What also remains unclear is the civilian toll of the operation. The UN has estimated that 7,000 have been killed and a further 16,700 wounded since the beginning of the year. If and when independent observers are allowed into the war zone, such figures could rise or fall.

Observers said that even with the military victory apparently secured, a major challenge for the government now would be dealing with the 250,000 to 300,000 refugees who have been driven from their homes. The government is putting the civilians into internment camps surrounded by razor wire from which they cannot leave, while it carries out security checks to identify possible Tiger fighters hiding among them and sweeps for mines in areas of the north previously held by the rebels. Most aid groups believe the refugees will be in the camps for at least a year.

"If you look at the numbers of dead and then the numbers of people forced from their homes, then it is a terrible price to pay," said Sarah Crowe, a regional spokeswoman for Unicef. "So much effort was invested in winning the war, but little effort has been put into winning the peace."

The final rout of the Tigers after a civil war that dates in its current incarnation to 1983 and which has probably claimed the lives of 100,000 people was cheered yesterday by many among Sri Lanka's Sinhala Buddhist majority, who set off fireworks and celebrated in the streets of Colombo. The government asked people to fly the national flag.

Three years ago, the once potent rebel forces controlled 5,792 square miles of Sri Lanka in the north and east. Even less than 18 months ago, when a sputtering ceasefire between the government and the rebels was finally broken, the Tigers still held a large strip of territory in the north.

But having vowed to destroy the rebels within a year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa dedicated huge resources to tackling them. By November, the military was reported to be in control of the entire western coast, having captured the strategic area of Pooneryn. Soon afterwards, in January, the government captured the rebels' de facto capital, Kilinochchi, in the north.

One of the biggest challenges for Mr Rajapaksa now will be to find a political settlement that draws in the country's Tamil minority. For years, the Tamils have complained of marginalisation at the hands of successive governments led by the Sinhalese majority, which came to power at independence in 1948, and took the favoured positions the Tamils had enjoyed under British colonial rule.

Mr Rajapaksa said he was willing to work for such a settlement but only once the military operation to crush the rebels was completed. That moment appears to have arrived.

Another issue will be how many Tigers are still be at large and whether – as some analysts have suggested – they will be able to carry out guerrilla strikes. The Tigers had said that in the case of a conventional defeat, those cadres would target Sri Lanka's economically valuable assets, an indirect threat to a tourism sector the government hopes can be boosted after the war.

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