/ 24 February 2009

Official: Tigers hold civilians as human shield for rebel chief

The elusive leader of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels is not expected to surrender despite losing his de facto state and may instead try to flee by boat, the country’s top defence official said on Tuesday.

Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran (54) could use a human smuggling ring to escape by boat, Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse told AFP in an interview at his tightly guarded sea-front office.

He accused the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of holding about 70 000 civilians as a human shield for Prabhakaran and senior aides who, he said, were widely expected by the military to try to escape.

”They can try to escape by boat although we have a big naval blockade,” Rajapakse said. ”It is a difficult task, but there is a possibility they will be able to do it.”

”He is still there [in the country]. I don’t see why he should commit suicide or surrender. After fighting for over 30 years, I don’t think he will take the cyanide capsule, he will try to escape.”

Rajapakse said the Tigers were preventing civilians from leaving the narrow 75-square-kilometre area still under their control to ensure no heavy weapons would be fired into the area.

”He [Prabhakaran] must be looking at human smuggling operations to get out of the country,” he said.

”That is a viable option for him. After Prabhakaran escapes with about 40 or 50 of his senior men, the Tigers will allow civilians to leave [the conflict zone],” he said.

The defence secretary’s comments came as government troops advanced on the last urban area in the north of Sri Lanka still in the hands of the Tamil rebels, who have been waging a lengthy battle for a separate state. — Sapa-AFP