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US urges Sri Lanka to reach out to Tamils

As Sri Lanka declared victory in one of the world’s most intractable wars, the European Union and United States urged its government to reach out to its Tamil population and protect civilians caught up in the fighting.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said on Tuesday that the country’s troops had freed the nation from separatist Tamil Tiger rebels after a 25-year civil war.

”We have totally liberated the country from Tamil Tiger terrorism,” Rajapaksa told Parliament in a nationally televised address. ”Now we have established our rule in the entire country.”

In a climactic gun battle, special forces troops killed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran on Monday as he tried to flee the war zone, state television said, giving the government control of the entire country for the first time since 1983.

However, a pro-rebel website on Tuesday claimed Prabhakaran was alive.

”I wish to inform the global Tamil community distressed witnessing the final events of the war that our beloved leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran is alive and safe,” quoted LTTE diplomatic head Selvarajah Pathmanathan as saying.

Prabhakaran (54) founded the LTTE on a culture of suicide before surrender and swore he would never be taken alive.

”This is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to turn the page on its past and build a Sri Lanka rooted in democracy, tolerance and respect for human rights,” US State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly told reporters on Monday.

”Now is the time for the government to engage the Tamils, Sinhalese and other Sri Lankans to create a political arrangement that promotes and protects the rights of all Sri Lankans,” he added.

Sri Lankan army commander Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka said troops had crushed the last Tigers resisting an offensive that has in less than three years destroyed a group that had cultivated an aura of military invincibility while earning many terrorism designations.

”We have liberated the entire country by completely liberating the north from the terrorists. We have gained full control of LTTE-held areas,” Fonseka announced on state TV.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa had already declared victory on Saturday, even as the final battle in Asia’s longest modern war was intensifying after Sri Lanka said the last of 72 000 civilians held in the war zone had been freed.

The Tigers have long warned they would intensify guerrilla attacks on economically valuable targets if defeated on the battlefield. The past violence has hindered growth in Sri Lanka’s tourism sector.

But the end of conventional combat and Prabhakaran’s death sent the currency and stock markets to one-month and seven-month highs respectively on Monday.

EU calls for probe
The Sri Lankan government’s triumph was not without controversy. Aside from the US comments, the European Union urged an independent inquiry into alleged human rights violations, mainly over reported civilian deaths.

The UN humanitarian affairs chief voiced concern over the fate of several ”heroic” Sri Lankan doctors whom the government accused of being propagandists for Tamil Tiger rebels.

UN spokesperson Marie Okabe said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was considering a trip to Sri Lanka soon to discuss the conditions of civilians in camps and reception centres under government control.

Sri Lanka accuses the West of double standards when it comes to civilian deaths, and points to US air strikes that have killed innocent people in Afghanistan and Pakistan as an example.

In Colombo on Monday, demonstrators threw rocks at the British High Commission, tossed a burning effigy of Foreign Secretary David Miliband inside and spray-painted its heavily fortified wall with epithets and a message: ”LTTE headquarters.”

Miliband has been critical of the government’s prosecution of the war, and is seen by some Sri Lankans as sympathetic to the vocal pro-LTTE lobby that has protested outside Britain’s Parliament for weeks.

Counting bodies

The final act of Sri Lanka’s civil war played out on a sandy patch of just 300 square metres near the Indian Ocean island’s northeastern coast, where the military said the last Tiger fighters had holed up in bunkers guarded by land mines and booby traps.

More than 250 Tigers corpses were recovered, and Fonseka said checks were under way to see if Prabhakaran’s was among them.

Independent confirmation of battlefield accounts is all but impossible, since the war zone has been sealed off to most outsiders.

Tamils and their supporters demonstrating outside Britain’s parliament on Monday refused to believe the war was over or the LTTE defeated.

”It’s not true, no way,” Sri Lankan-born Jey Moorthy (23), who claimed to be a Tamil Tiger. ”I don’t think my leader [is] dead.” Even if Prabhakaran was killed another leader would emerge in his place, he said. ”It’s going to continue. We are not going to leave it like this.”

Rajapaksa has pledged to call elections in the former LTTE areas as swiftly as possible.

Tamils complain of marginalisation at the hands of successive governments led by the Sinhalese majority, which came to power at independence in 1948 and took the favoured position the Tamils had enjoyed under the British colonial government. — Reuters

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