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Army says Tamil Tiger leader is still at large

Video by Fiona CAMERON

Latest update : 2009-04-26

A Sri Lankan military commander says the leader of the Tamil Tigers is trapped in the jungle but is still in charge of his depleted army. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka refused a UN demand to send a humanitarian mission to the island's war-torn north.

AFP - The leader of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers is trapped in a small strip of jungle in the northeast and intends to make a final stand with his surviving forces, an army commander said Friday.

The commander said a rebel spokesman who surrendered to government troops earlier in the week had reported that Velupillai Prabhakaran, 54, was still in charge of his cornered and depleted separatist army.

The Tamil Tiger spokesman "says that Prabhakaran was living inside and that he will be there until the last moment," Brigadier Shavendra Silva told reporters.

"But, even at the last minute, he will try to escape," said the commander, who is spearheading the offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Prabhakaran has not been seen for 18 months, and speculation has been rife that he may have been killed or already fled the island.

Like his soldiers, the mustachioed warlord carries a cyanide pill to be used in the event of capture.

Silva told reporters flown to the former Tiger capital of Kilinochchi, 330 kilometres (180 miles) north of Colombo, that there were many guerrillas who wanted to surrender.

The army says the remnants of the LTTE -- who once controlled a third of the island -- are confined to a 10 square kilometre (around four square mile) strip of coastline.

Journalists were shown a large haul of mortars and small arms said to have been captured from the Tigers in recent battles.

Brigadier Silva said his unit had killed 5,953 Tiger fighters and wounded another 2,938 since September 2007, when a Norwegian-backed truce began to collapse. He did not give corresponding military casualties.

The LTTE have been widely accused of using civilians as human shields, and the island's hawkish government is also facing mounting international demands to call a truce and spare more civilian lives.

Aid agencies and human rights groups say thousands of non-combatants have died this year in the onslaught by government troops, many in indiscriminate shelling.

More than 100,000 men, women and children have managed to escape the area still under LTTE control in recent days, but the United Nations believes up to 50,000 still remain trapped.

The government, however, has steadfastly resisted appeals to call a truce and has also turned down requests to send humanitarian teams into the area.

As well as blocking most aid agencies, the Sri Lankan authorities have herded escaping Tamil civilians into closely-guarded internment camps so they can weed out suspected rebels.

"It would not be sensible to let aid agencies into the conflict zone because there is already an army operation in progress to rescue civilians," Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse told the BBC.

However a Sri Lankan government official who declined to be named acknowledged Colombo was under "tremendous international pressure" -- with nearby India also sending an emergency diplomatic mission.

Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan arrived in Colombo Friday to meet with President Mahinda Rajapakse, and New Delhi said the officials would stress the severity of the humanitarian crisis.

"These killings must stop. The Sri Lankan government has a responsibility to protect its own citizens and the LTTE must stop its barbaric attempt to hold civilians hostage," Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in a statement.

India is currently in the middle of a month-long general election and the government is under pressure to respond to the concerns of around 60 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu -- a key swing state in the south -- over the fate of their fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka.


Date created : 2009-04-24