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After 70,000 dead, Tigers surrender in war-weary Sri Lanka

From Monday's Globe and Mail

The 26-year civil war that has fractured Sri Lanka has come to a horrific close, with the surviving Tamil Tiger rebel leaders declaring an end to their struggle to build a breakaway military state, their all-controlling leader reported dead, and their dwindling rump of fighters surrounded by the burnt corpses of thousands of civilians.

A few holdout fighters were trapped last night on a tiny strip of sand and scrub, less than 600 metres across, that until the surrender had been the last vestige of Tamil Eelam, the totalitarian linguistic-minority breakaway state the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had spent decades building and defending.

As the Sri Lankan military shelled, bombed and shot its way into this barren but densely populated strip of land on the edge of the Indian Ocean, there were celebrations further south on the streets of Colombo, the island nation's capital.

In other capitals, and in the office of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, there were grave criticisms of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa for a campaign of unprecedented violence that appeared to ignore humanitarian concerns and the Geneva Conventions as the Sri Lankan military bombed and shelled tens of thousands of Tamil civilians whose homes and lives are intermixed with the Tiger forces. There have been at least 7,000 civilian casualties in the north.

The final struggle yesterday may have killed Velupillai Prabhakaran, the military strongman and LTTE chief who tried to turn the northern and eastern fringes of the tiny island into a state for the Tamil-speaking minority. Unconfirmed reports from Tamil and Sri Lankan sources reported yesterday that his corpse had been found amidst the burned-out wreckage.

The battle has also created 250,000 refugees, many of them wounded, who cannot return to homes and lives that in most cases had been the property of an all-consuming military regime that no longer exists. They are victims of both the LTTE's strict and punitive regime and of Colombo's military, and their future lives are tragically uncertain.

In the final hours of the struggle yesterday, LTTE forces had resorted to a tactic they had introduced to the world decades ago, the suicide bombing, and there are fears that vestigial squads of Tamil separatists will soon launch a terrorist campaign across the island.

This has led the government to restrict the freedoms of the refugees, locking them behind barbed wire and strictly controlling movement. There are grave fears of a self-perpetuating spiral of violence and ethnic polarization that could prove worse than the civil war itself.

That this seemingly endless war has come to such an explosive and complete end is a reflection of the way the world has changed in the past few years.

When Mr. Rajapaksa came to power at the end of 2005, he began speaking of the struggle between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese-speaking majority and militants from its Tamil-speaking minority using a new language adapted from the struggles against al-Qaeda in Washington and London. He enlisted the help of then-U.S.-president George W. Bush, who listed the Tamil Tigers as a part of the global terrorist threat.

Suddenly, this long-running civil war was part of the Bush administration's “war on terror.” At the same time, the ethnic breakaway state, that bloody staple of 20th-century politics, was losing its appeal in international circles.

But the Tigers themselves are also victims of a changing world. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami struck the Tamil heartland hard, killing tens of thousands of people, a great many of them children who were being raised in orphanages to serve in the LTTE's forces. It also destroyed the entire fleet of the Sea Tigers, the LTTE's once-formidable navy. The Tigers once had support in India and other countries, but this dissolved fast in the 1990s after LTTE squads assassinated Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa. Tamil-speaking Muslims, once a core community in the LTTE-controlled east, broke with the separatist movement and became targets of Tiger attacks, further alienating potential supporters.

A top LTTE commander, Colonel Karuna, defected in 2004, taking a sizable part of the Tiger military command with him. His faction, supportive of the Sri Lankan government, helped turn the country's south-eastern coast into a largely government-loyal region.

In his 2005 election campaign, Mr. Rajapaksa put aside years of delicate peace negotiations, many of them negotiated by Canadians (Bob Rae, the current Liberal foreign-affairs critic, had been a negotiator), ended efforts, mostly unsuccessful, to offer the Tamils a Quebec-style semi-autonomous status, and vowed in his election campaign to put an end to the Tiger problem forever.

He soon ended the ceasefire that had allowed the island's economy to return to a tentative normality in the first half of this decade. With a tsunami-weakened LTTE and a government bolstered by international aid, a total war was launched.

With heavy arms and aircraft provided by China, missiles made in Slovakia and tactics learned from U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan (the United States suspended military aid in 2007 amidst human-rights concerns), the Sri Lankan army launched its fourth and deadliest major campaign against the Tigers starting in January this year.

The putative capital of Tamil Eelam, the inland city of Kilinochchi, was quickly overwhelmed, and the Tigers retreated to their beach hideout on a thin strip of land north of the coastal city of Mullaitivu, an area that was almost totally destroyed in the tsunami. They took tens of thousands of civilians with them, reportedly force-marching them along the highways of the north.

The climax of the war was reached late yesterday, when the LTTE announced the surrender on its website. “This battle has reached its bitter end,” LTTE official Selvarajah Pathmanathan said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. “It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them. 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.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said the Canadian government is committed to seeking a political settlement in Sri Lanka.

“What we need here is some kind of an agreement that is going to … set these issues to rest after 25 years,” he told CTV's Question Period yesterday. “We've been calling for a long-term political settlement of these issues, and that's Canada's position. We still promote that, we still believe in it.”

Norwegian negotiators announced yesterday that the Tigers had agreed to hand over their weapons to a third party. The final 72,000 civilians fled the conflict zone, thousands of them wading across a shallow lagoon from the sandspit, many bandaged and limping.

The fighting continued well into the night, and may continue for several days, but officials on both sides said that there no longer seems to be anyone commanding the remaining Tamil fighters. The war is over, but the most difficult struggle is likely to begin today.

With a report from Campbell Clark

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