Colombo, May 18 (IANS): Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long insurgency ended with a blaze of bullets as Velupillai Prabhakaran, the dreaded chief of the Tamil Tigers that was responsible for assassinating Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and several leaders of the island nation, was killed Monday while trying to flee the battle zone.
Wild celebrations erupted in large parts of Sri Lanka, including capital Colombo, as the authorities announced that the elusive 54-year-old – who fled his home in 1972 with nothing more than a dream to carve out an independent Tamil homeland – had died, ending one of the world’s longest running insurgencies that bled the tiny country of 20 million people dominated by the Sinhalese.
Soldiers fired at an ambulance in which Prabhakaran was being taken by his loyalists from the war zone in the north. His face apparently caught fire and he breathed his last in a small stretch of land near the coast in Mullaitivu district, an area about 400 km from here, which he had made his hideout a long time ago, building seemingly impregnable underground bunkers.
The death came hours after his elder son Charles Anthony, who headed the group’s IT wing and was being groomed to succeed him, was also killed. It marked the collapse of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which Prabhakaran set up in 1976 and which became one of the most well-armed and ruthless insurgent groups in the world with its own army, navy and air force.
It also came three days before the 18th anniversary of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, who was blown up by a woman Tamil Tiger suicide bomber at an election rally near Chennai in India on May 21, 1991. The LTTE also similarly killed Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa and several Sri Lankan ministers, politicians and other leading personalities in its quarter-century reign of terror which it conducted in defence of minority Tamil rights.
A triumphant Sri Lankan army chief, Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, told state-owned TV: ‘We have now completed our task of liberating the north and east from terrorists.’ Fonseka was badly wounded when an LTTE suicide bomber sneaked into the fortified army headquarters in Colombo and tried to blow him up.
Also killed Monday with Prabhakaran was Shanmugalingam Shivashankar alias Pottu Amman, the dreaded chief of the intelligence wing that was responsible for all the high profile assassinations the Tigers carried out in its long and murderous history.
Other key LTTE leaders whose bodies were found Monday were Soosai, the LTTE’s naval wing leader; Balasingham Nadesan, who headed its political wing; S. Puleedevan, head of the Peace Secretariat; Ramesh, a military leader; Ilango, chief of the LTTE police; and Kapil Amman from the LTTE intelligence wing.
Puleedevan dealt extensively with the diplomatic community during the Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement between Colombo and the LTTE from 2002 until it collapsed under renewed violence within a few years.
The deaths sparked frenzied celebrations in Colombo and vast parts of the Sinhalese populated central and southern provinces as people poured out of their homes, waved national flags and distributed sweets.
Born into a Hindu middle class family of Jaffna in 1954, Prabhakaran was the youngest of two sons and two daughters of a junior government employee in the Sri Lankan government.
A school dropout, he set up the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) group in 1972, which became the LTTE in 1976. He singlehandedly built it into an awesome military machine that at one point controlled a third of Sri Lanka’s land territory and two-thirds of its coastline.
The discovery of the bodies of Prabhakaran and the others – television footage showed the blown up face of Prabhakaran’s son Anthony – marks the macabre end of a group which still commands a lot of support among Tamil expatriates spread all over the West as well as in sections of Tamil Nadu, where Prabhakaran lived 1983-87 and where the LTTE once had training camps and offices.
Anthony’s body was found at Karayamullavaikkal in Mullaitivu district, ‘after an unsuccessful and half-hearted attempt by LTTE cadres to evacuate their leader’s son early this morning’, the defence ministry said.
Tamil sources told IANS that a large number of LTTE fighters may have committed mass suicide in Mullaitivu district by blowing themselves up so as to avoid falling into the hands of the military.
Prabhakaran’s death also came a day after the LTTE made a momentous announcement that it had decided to ‘silence’ its guns as the ‘battle has reached its bitter end’.
But the Sri Lankan military, determined to have a total victory over the LTTE, continued the last of its mopping up operations.
More than 250,000 civilians who fled rebel-held areas were being housed in camps in the northern province with promises from the government that they would be resettled in their original villages as soon as possible.