19 May 2009

Sri Lankan military claims victory over rebels

6:44 am on 19 May 2009

Sri Lankan troops won the final battle in a separatist conflict and put the island nation under government control for the first time since 1983, the military said on Monday.

In the final gunbattle, special forces troops killed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran as he tried to flee the war zone in an ambulance early on Monday, state television reported.

The rebels' intelligence chief Pottu Amman and Soosai, head of the "Sea Tiger" naval wing, were also believed killed, the report said.

Prabhakaran founded the Tamil Tigers on a culture of suicide before surrender, and had sworn he would never be taken alive.

Army commander Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka said troops on Monday morning had finished the task given to them by President Mahinda Rajapaksa three years ago.

"We have liberated the entire country by completely liberating the north from the terrorists. We have gained full control of LTTE-held areas," he announced on state television.

The final fight played out on a sandy patch of just 300 square metres near the Indian Ocean island's northeastern coast, where the military said the last Tiger fighters had holed up in bunkers and surrounded themselves with land mines and booby traps.

In the past few days, the rebels had been penned into a 1.5-square-kilometre area.

The Tigers had been fighting for a separate state for Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka since the 1970s.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict and thousands displaced.