AFP - Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels on Sunday admitted defeat in their 37-year battle for an independent ethnic homeland, with their few remaining fighters encircled in the jungle by soldiers.
The Tigers' armed campaign against the government left well over 70,000 people dead in decades of pitched battles, suicide attacks, bomb strikes and assassinations.
"This battle has reached its bitter end," the Tigers' chief of international relations, Selvarasa Pathmanathan, said in a statement carried on the pro-rebel Tamilnet website.
"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.
"Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer."
Only two years ago, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) controlled nearly a third of the island nation and operated an effectively autonomous Tamil state with courts, schools and a civil service.
But the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse launched a huge military offensive which drove the Tigers out of the east and then the north, before trapping the remaining guerrillas on the coast.
The military's final push for victory has come at the cost of thousands of innocent lives, the United Nations has said, with the government's brutal tactics attracting widespread international condemnation.
The LTTE's announcement came as the island's defence ministry said all civilians held by the Tigers had escaped the war zone, with the last few rebel fighters boxed into a small patch of jungle.
"They were actually defeated some time ago, but they have formally accepted defeat only now," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told AFP.
"They fought for an Eelam (separate state) that they could never win. It was only a waste of lives. They have caused massive death and destruction over the years. Finally they themselves have realised that it is all over."
Sri Lankan military leaders say they held back on their final assault to avoid civilian deaths, though thousands are still thought to have been killed in months of heavy fighting.
Rajapakse, who announced in Jordan on Saturday that his forces had finally defeated the rebels, was greeted by supporters waving flags and setting off firecrackers as he returned home.
"My government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has in an unprecedented humanitarian operation finally defeated the LTTE militarily," he told an international leaders' meeting.
The president has faced fierce international criticism for civilian casualties caused by shelling and for the detention in state-run camps of more than 100,000 Tamils who fled the fighting.
Thousands of non-combatants had been held hostage by the Tigers, though the exact number has been a matter of dispute between the United Nations and Sri Lankan officials.
The government had previously maintained that less than 20,000 civilians were being held by the rebels as human shields, while the UN said there could be 50,000 people trapped.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only neutral organisation working in the war zone, described the situation as "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe."
Despite pleas for a ceasefire, Sri Lanka had been determined to push for a clear victory against the rebels.
The Tigers' defeat is thought unlikely to bring peace to Sri Lanka, with Tamil fighters instead returning to the guerrilla hit-and-run tactics that they had used to devastating effect in the past.