COLOMBO (AFP) — The Sri Lankan government on Monday declared an end to its decades-old conflict with the Tamil Tigers, after routing the remnants of the rebel army and killing its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The army said its commandos overran the last sliver of Tiger territory, killing the last 300 fighters and decimating the rebel leadership. It said Prabhakaran and two deputies were shot dead trying to flee in a van and ambulance.
"We have successfully ended the war," the island's powerful defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, told the president Monday in a nationally televised ceremony.
Army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka also declared an end to all combat operations.
"Prabhakaran's body is among the 300 terrorist bodies that we captured," General Fonseka said on state television. "Now the entire country is declared rid of terrorism."
The statements marked the end of one of Asia's oldest and most brutal ethnic conflicts which left more than 70,000 dead from pitched battles, suicide attacks, bomb strikes and assassinations.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged in the 1970s, with all-out war breaking out in the early 1980s as they pursued their struggle for an independent Tamil homeland on the Sinhalese-majority island.
Officials said all rebel leaders were killed in a final showdown on a lagoon and jungle peninsula on the northeast coast.
Prabhakaran and his two deputies had tried to flee advancing troops in an ambulance and another van but were ambushed by commandos, a senior defence ministry official told AFP.
The bodies were recovered and were undergoing DNA and forensic tests, defence sources said.
The defence ministry said troops also killed Prabhakaran's deputies -- Sea Tiger leader Colonel Soosai and LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Amman.
Also killed were the rebel leader's 24-year-old son and potential heir Charles Anthony, the group's political wing leader B. Nadesan, and the head of the LTTE's defunct Peace Secretariat, S. Pulideevan.
The pro-rebel Tamilnet website, however, said the LTTE leadership had told the Red Cross and United Nations they had stopped fighting and wanted to give themselves up, but that "initial reports indicate a determined massacre by the Sri Lanka Army".
In a dramatic announcement, the Tamil guerrillas had acknowledged Sunday that their battle for an independent ethnic homeland had reached its "bitter end"
The capital Colombo, which has been frequently hit by Tiger suicide attacks over the past quarter century, witnessed massive street celebrations -- with residents setting off firecrackers and waving flags.
"This is a victory against terrorism. I am very proud of our forces, of what they have done," said Ashani de Silva, a Colombo student, as national flags were put up over shops, homes, offices and cars.
Victory euphoria also gripped Sri Lanka's stock exchange, with the main index jumping 6.45 percent.
The United States on Tuesday welcomed an end to the fighting while the European Union called for an independent enquiry into alleged human rights violations.
The Sri Lankan government's moment of triumph has also come at the cost of thousands of innocent lives lost in indiscriminate shelling, according to the United Nations. The UN's rights body now wants a war crimes probe.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only neutral organisation that has been allowed to work in the war zone, has described "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe."
It said it had been unable to reach the wounded in Sri Lanka's northeastern conflict zone since the reported end of fighting.
The estimated 250,000 people displaced by the war are being moved into state-run "welfare villages" -- camps ringed by barbed wire and another source of international alarm.
Rights workers, aid groups and journalists are also being denied free access to the north.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon is considering travelling to Sri Lanka, his press office said Monday, without confirming the visit will take place this week.
Meanwhile hundreds of ethnic Tamil immigrants converged on the White House Monday, imploring US President Barack Obama to pressure Sri Lanka into ending a "genocide" on the island.
"President Obama, you are our only hope!" chanted the demonstrators, many of whom held placards bearing the Prabhakaran's image.
Hundreds more calling for foreign intervention in Sri Lanka clashed with police outside the UN building in Geneva, authorities said.
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