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Rebels In Sri Lanka Give Up; India Elections Wrap

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have decided to lay down their arms. They are completely surrounded by the Sri Lankan army. The army claims the thousands of civilians who were trapped with the separatists are now out of the area. The conflict has lasted a quarter of a century and has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

We are joined by NPR's Philip Reeves who's been following developments. And, Philip, what's the latest news from Sri Lanka?

PHILIP REEVES: A statement has appeared on a pro-Tamil Tiger Web site. It states that it's from the head of the Tamil Tigers' international diplomatic relations. He states the battle has reached its bitter end. We have decided to silence our guns, he says. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for any longer. It says that thousands of Tamil civilians are dead or injured. And that it's taken the - the Tamil Tigers have taken this decision to save their lives.

So I think we are at a critical moment in this conflict, which has gone on for nearly three decades. Remember, the Tamil Tigers are trapped in a scrap of land, which is no more than one square kilometer. The Sri Lankan military say that Tamil Tiger cadres have been blowing themselves up and describes itself now as conducting mopping up operations.

The president of the country, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has already said that the Tamil Tigers are defeated. And in the south, the Sinhalese, who form the majority of the population of some 21 million, are celebrating in the streets.

HANSEN: Tell us more about that multitude of civilians in the war zone.

REEVES: The Sri Lankan army said today that over the last 72 hours, all 50,000 of the Tamil civilians who've been trapped in the war zone are now out of the area. If this is true, it will be an enormous relief to many people, including humanitarian agencies and many others who've been deeply concerned - many in the international community, including the U.S. actually - about what was happening with these civilians.

We know that in recent days hundreds of them have been killed. We know in there that there are hundreds of injured who are desperately in need of medical care. And of course over the last six months, thousands have died. So if it's true, then that will be a relief. There's no independent confirmation, however. It's very difficult to get firm information out of the war zone.

The Sri Lankan government has barred access to independent international media and to international humanitarian agencies and so on. So, we are always in search of verifications of claims that are made by either side. However, the military has released some footage and that shows what appears to be a large number of people leaving the area. It's not clear when the footage was shot.

HANSEN: Do you know what's happened to the leader of the Tamil Tigers?

REEVES: That's Velupillai Pirapaharan, the guy who's been leading that guerrilla movement for decades. And the answer is that there are rumors - and I stress rumors - that his body has been found. That's been claimed by an unnamed source and it's come out of Sri Lanka, but there are equally people saying that this isn't true. So I would put a very strong health warning on that piece of information at this stage - bearing in mind that in all wars propaganda flies thick and fast, and in this war, particularly.

HANSEN: Philip, you've also been following the elections in India. And there was surprise at the scale of the Congress party's victory yesterday. Can you tell us more?

REEVES: Yes, indeed, it was much, much bigger than anyone expected. There are a couple of votes still, seats still being counted, but we have a pretty fair picture now of what's happened. And Congress and its allies have ended up with 260 seats -that's just 12 short of the 272 seats in parliament that they need in order to secure a parliamentary majority.

Now, the big worry with this election was that no party would get anywhere near close to that figure and that they would have to spend weeks trying to cobble together a coalition and that would produce a weak, fragile, fractious government. That hasn't happened. They are just 12, sort of, recruits short of that number.

Talks are now under way about who they can recruit to fill those places. They're going to last a couple of days, but the Congress party will have no difficulty finding friends in these circumstances. It really is a big win for them.

HANSEN: India's a rising global power now. What does this election mean for the way that the country will be governed?

REEVES: Well, I think the issue of stability is very important. There were great concerns in the international community that a weak India government would contribute to the overall instability in South Asia at the moment. Don't let us forget that we are right next door to Pakistan. And we are only a few months away from the terrible Mumbai attacks, which were launched by a group based in Pakistan against the Indian city of Mumbai, in which were - caused a great political hiatus in South Asia and a fracture in the relationship between India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear weapons.

So it's a sensitive area. And the fact that we appear to be getting a stable Indian government will be something that is very much valued both in India and overseas.

HANSEN: What have you observed about the reaction to the outcome of these elections?

REEVES: Well, it's quite funny. I traveled around New Delhi, which, of course, the seat of government - federal government is based here in New Delhi - this morning to see if anything much was happening and it was a quiet as the grave. It was as if the city was sort of a mixture of basically stunned and also the players here were exhausted. I mean, they've been on the campaign trail for a month.

Elections here do take a long time and it's a big country. But in the newspapers there is a great deal of excitement, of course, about the result. And they have particularly singled out the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, for praise. People are arguing that this quiet, understated economist has been underestimated and that the public valued what he brings to Indian politics - a quality of good governance. He's stayed aloof from the political fray. He's always argued, actually, that he's an economist, not really a politician.

But the other person who's appearing in the newspapers in a very glowing light is Rahul Gandhi. Now, of course, he is a member of the first family of the Congress party. Great-grandchild of Nehru, the first prime minister and a grandchild of Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter.

And he played a big role in this election. He was active all over the country, going to state after state to campaign for support. He put a fresh, youthful face on the party and now there's a lobby already at work who says he should be a member of the cabinet.

HANSEN: NPR's South Asia correspondent, Phil Reeves. Phil, thanks a lot.

REEVES: You're most welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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