Spectre of Mass Suicide as Tamil Tigers Face Final Battle

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Members of the Sri Lankan military stand on a beach where they have surrounded Tamil Tiger rebels.

Facing the crushing defeat of their 26-year insurgency as Sri Lankan military closes in on the last sliver of territory under their control, the embattled separatist fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are not expected to allow themselves to be taken alive. "LTTE terrorists are preparing for a mass suicide after being effectively cut-off of escape routes, both land and sea and now encircled in a mere 3.5 square kilometer [1.4 square miles] of land west of Vellamullivaikkal," the Defence Ministry said on Saturday, citing intercepted communications. "According to defence observers, the LTTE senior ranks are expecting to prolong its imminent defeat resorting to such futile terror tactics using civilian hostages, new recruits and black tigers [suicide cadres] as weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)."

Military sources fear that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and other commanders may be ringed by at least 100 Black Tigers, and some appear to have sent their families out of the war zone. The military said that on May 15, it had captured the wife, son, daughter, sister-in-law and niece of Thillaiambalam Sivanesan (known as Colonel Soosai), who heads the Sea Tigers, the separatists' naval wing. They were trying to escape the fighting by sea, accompanied by 17 others including the family of another senior Tiger known as Suda. Soosai revealed that her husband remained inside the combat zone along with Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman, the LTTE intelligence chief and effective second in command. The Tigers tried to ram an explosive-laden truck at advancing troops on Saturday, but the vehicle failed to reach its target after troops fired at it. At least four suicide attacks have been reported since January, involving bombers mingling with escaping civilians before detonating their explosive belts. Information from inside the war zone is scarce, but pro-LTTE websites said that the stench of death permeates the area. (See pictures from inside Tiger-held territory at the height of the insurgency)

Between Wednesday and Saturday over 17,000 civilians had escaped from the combat zone, some using inflated tyres to cross the Nathikandal lagoon. As many as 10,000 made the desperate crossing in the past 48 hours. U.N. officials have accused the Tigers of preventing the civilians from leaving the area. As one boat floated near the coast, footage released by the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry showed men, women and children jumping off and running towards the coast some clutching infants. On Saturday morning, the Defence Ministry announced that two army divisions that had been moving along the coast had linked up, effectively cutting off the coastline from the Tigers.

Fierce fighting has prevented Red Cross ships from reaching the area to evacuate the wounded and ferry in food since May 9. Pro-Tiger websites are also reported that the make-shift hospital operating in the combat zone is no longer able to function. They alleged that by Saturday, the two health officials who had been overseeing the medical care had left the combat zone.

As their insurgency's end appeared to draw near, the Tigers once appealed for international intervention. "Our people are now at the mercy of the international community and it has to take full responsibility for the future of our people," Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the head of the LTTE's international department said in statement on Saturday. "Encouraged by the hopeful words of President [Barack] Obama, the LTTE is again stating its categorical position to enter a political process facilitated by neutral international parties and find a meaningful solution to the ethnic crisis," he said, referring to the U.S. President's call earlier this week for an end to the fighting that has imperiled tens of thousands of civilians. "An onslaught by the Government will only result in thousands more dying and will not pave a way for a dignified and respectful outcome," he continued. "We are ready to cooperate and work towards peace as Mr Obama has insisted." But the two sides have talked before, and with the military now within hours of destroying the long running insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives, the government is unlikely to take up the LTTE's latest offer of dialogue.

Nor is there likely to be any foreign intervention, even in the unlikely event of mass surrender by the Tigers. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to return from a visit to Jordan on Sunday, and declare a final victory over the Tigers. Before leaving Jordan, Rajapaksa announced, "I will return to Sri Lanka as a leader of a nation that vanquished terrorism."