The leader of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has been killed along with his son and other Tiger commanders, according to reports.
Prabhakaran was ambushed and shot dead while trying to flee government troops as special forces closed in on the last rebel fortifications, it was reported today.
However that account of events was disputed by a military spokesman who said that there had been no identification of Prabhakaran as yet.
The Sri Lankan army killed a number of other senior Tamil Tiger commanders as fighting continued to rage despite the Tigers' weekend admission of defeat.
Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, told The Times that commando units and other crack government troops were trading machine gun fire with “a couple of hundred” of Tiger fighters hunkered down in fortified bunkers, thought to include several senior rebel leaders.
The conflict area had been reduced to a patch of land just 100 metres by 100 metres, he added. Tens of thousands of civilians who had been caught in the crossfire were finally allowed to flee to freedom over the weekend.
A senior defence official said Prabhakaran had been killed while trying to flee the area in an ambulance with two close aides.
"He was killed with two others inside the vehicle," the official told AFP.
The government said that they had found the body of Prabhakaran's 24 year old son Charles Anthony, the heir apparent of the Tigers’ leadership.
The head of the rebels’ political wing, Balasingham Nadesan, the head of the Tigers' defunct peace secretariat, Seevaratnam Puleedevan, and their eastern leader, S. Ramesh were also said to be among the dead.
Independent verification of the situation is all but impossible as journalists are not being allowed near the conflict zone. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only neutral organisation allowed access, told The Times that it had lost contact with its 25 staff members on the battlefield yesterday morning.
In Colombo protesters burned an effigy of David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, outside the British High Commission today.
Many Sri Lankans believe that the West has supported the Tamil Tiger cause by criticising the Army’s offensive against the rebels and the Government’s refusal to call a ceasefire to allow civilians to escape.
Britain said yesterday that it would give another £5m in aid to Sri Lanka "It is vital that the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers allow international agencies immediate access to the thousands of people driven from their homes by the fighting, Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, said.
At his height Prabhakaran built the Tigers into arguably the most effective terrorist organisation in the world. He pioneered the use of suicide bombers, plotted the assasination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister, and at one time commanded about a third of Sri Lanka as he strove to build a separate Tamil state in the north of the country.
His campaign for an ethnic Tamil homeland, which he said would free the ethnic minority from the oppression of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, cost more than 70,000 lives over 26 years.
The continuation of fighting today cast doubt on a dramatic statement made by the Tigers’ chief of international relations yesterday, which appeared to indicate that the rebels were surrendering.
Selvarasa Pathmanathan, who is thought to be hiding in Malaysia, said in a statement published on the Tamilnet website that the Tigers’ fight for an ethnic homeland had reached its "bitter end".
He added: "We have decided to silence our guns …Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer."
Pathmanathan yesterday said that Prabhakaran, who has lived underground since 1972, was still alive, along with 2,000 fighters.
Pro-Government newspapers in Sri Lanka today likened the defeat of the Tigers to the feat of landing a man on the moon. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country’s president, is expected to give a proclamation of victory in Parliament today or tomorrow.
But many are asking at what cost the Tigers, who are designated as a terrorist organisation by more than 30 countries, including the UK, have been vanquished.
A UN spokesman said yesterday that the organisation was “scrambling” to supply aid for an estimated 300,000 civilians displaced by the conflict in recent weeks.
Citing the poor physical condition of 130,000 people who escaped the conflict zone in mid-April, UN officials said that many of those who fled at the weekend would require urgent medical attention for battlefield injuries and malnutrition. The army says that only a few need hospital care.
Meanwhile, attitudes among ordinary Sri Lankans to the conflict’s bloody climax are divided.
Among some Sinhalese in Colombo, the capital, where government workers had spent yesterday morning decking the streets in bunting and national flags, the mood was jubilant.
“It is a great day for our President,” said W. S. C. Bandula, 40, a driver. “The war is over. We can look forward to better lives, better security, a better economy.”
Others were less sure.
“Some of my friends believe the suffering is worth it to beat the terrorists. But I can’t feel any happiness when there has been so much bloodshed,” said Marisa, 27, a Sinhalese office worker.
There are now calls for a political solution to the conflict amid fears that Tiger sleeper cells may be preparing a wave of suicide attacks in the south of the country. Mano Ganesan, a prominent Tamil MP and human rights activist, told The Times: “The war is won but the political conditions [underpinning] Tamil militancy remain undefeated.”