Firecrackers exploded around Colombo on Monday as Sri Lankans celebrated what they hoped would be the end to a civil war that has plagued the nation since 1983. At 1:40 p.m., Sri Lanka's government radio announced that Velupillai Prabhakaran, the elusive leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was killed early this morning by special forces in the island's northern Karayamullavaikkal area. The 54-year-old Prabhakaran, who headed the Tamil separatist movement for 33 years, had been trying to flee the shrinking 100-m by 100-m pocket of land still under Tiger control in an ambulance when troops intercepted the vehicle, shooting those inside.
Two of Prabhakaran's trusted lieutenants intelligence head Pottu Amman and Sea Tiger leader Soosai were also killed in the ambush. "LTTE terrorists made their final bid to evacuate its leaders early this morning as army élites pierced in to the last remaining LTTE foothold last night," the Defense Ministry said in a statement later in the day. "The terrorists managed to take hold of two vehicles and [are] believed to have put their senior leaders into those vehicles before they started moving northward." (See pictures of Sri Lanka's rebel-held territory.)
The Tigers were cornered into the narrow patch on Sunday after President Mahinda Rajapaksa had announced the day before that the Tigers were a spent force. "We are not after any person or any personal agenda. We want to rid this country of terrorism; that is why we went after the LTTE leadership," Lakshman Hulugalle, director-general of the Defense Ministry's Media Centre for National Security told TIME. "With the leadership wiped out, this organization cannot re-emerge." Army Commander Lieutenant Sareth Fonseka also said that Prabhakaran's death marked the end of the LTTE-led separatist war. "We have rid the country of terrorism," he told national television soon after the official announcement of Prabhakaran's death aired. (Read "The Tigers' Last Days.")
Hours before Prabhakaran's death was announced, the Defense Ministry had declared that at least six top Tiger leaders were killed in fighting in the early-morning hours, including Prabhakaran's 24-year-old son Charles Anthony. All of the leaders, including Prabhakaran, appeared to be fleeing in the same two-vehicle convoy. The entire country had been decked in the Sri Lankan national flag since Sunday, anticipating the final victory over the Tigers. President Rajapaksa is due to address the nation from parliament on Tuesday.
Pro-Tiger websites had reported that the Tiger leaders had contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Sunday morning to inform the aid group that only some 1,000 people remained in the narrow area under Tiger control, including the Tiger leadership, nonmilitary LTTE members and cadres, some injured. The pro-Tiger site TamilNet had reported that LTTE leadership told the ICRC that "there was no firing from the LTTE side" and "urged the ICRC to evacuate the wounded." Both the leaders mentioned in the report were later killed by government forces.
The ICRC Colombo office said it had no information of any such communication. Military sources told TIME that the Tigers were also suspected of talking with a European nation and the U.N. in order to surrender to a third party. "We gave them so many chances to surrender. The President kept repeating this," Hulugalle told TIME. "They waited this long. They caused so much of death and damage. They exhausted any chance of any surrender." (Read about the Tigers' last few days of battle.)
What's next for the Tigers? The government has raised the possibility of the remnants of the LTTE regrouping into a diffuse guerrilla operation. But without its top leadership, a personality-driven movement like the LTTE is unlikely to last long. It could also continue in some form in the Tamil diaspora, though its reason for being the creation of a Tamil homeland, or eelam is essentially destroyed. The leadership of what remains of the Tigers mainly its international network is likely to be assumed by Selvarasa Pathmanathan, who now heads the global operations but who was better known as the Tiger's chief arms-procurement agent. Prabhakaran is believed to have given some instructions to LTTE representatives in Malaysia and elsewhere, but it is unclear what his intentions were.