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Sri Lanka Claims Victory, Rebel Leader Killed

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

A vicious civil war that's endured for over a quarter of a century in South Asia has ended. In Sri Lanka, the rebels known as the Tamil Tigers now say their pursuit of an independent homeland has, quote, reached its bitter end. To underscore that the rebellion has been truly crushed, earlier today, Sri Lanka state television broke into its regular programming to report that the powerful leader of the rebels was dead. NPR's Philip Reeves has more.

PHILIP REEVES: No one was ever going to be convinced Sri Lanka's civil war was really over until one man was dead. That man is Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Tamil Tigers. Now, Sri Lanka's government says he has been shot dead. It claims he was in an ambulance trying to escape the tiny patch of land where he and his followers made their last stand. This marks the end of one of the world's most feared guerrilla leaders. For three decades, Prabhakaran led a battle for an independent homeland in the island's north and east for the Tamil minority. The Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, at one stage controlled thousands of square miles of terrain. It had its own police and tax men.

It even controlled a shipping line. But it was also known for its ruthless methods in pursuing war. It carried out numerous assassinations, and made suicide bombings a hallmark of its tactics. M.R. Narayanaswamy, author of a profile of Prabhakaran, said Prabhakaran had the unusual ability to persuade people to lay down their lives for the cause.

Mr. M.R. NARAYANASWAMY (Author of "Inside An Elusive Mind - Prabhakaran"): There were hundreds of people, literally thousands, who were willing to follow him, and if he ordered them to die, they were willing to die.

REEVES: The Sri Lankan military also said today that it has recovered the body of Prabhakaran's eldest son. He operated under the nom de guerre of Charles Anthony, and is believed to have commanded the Tamil Tigers' tiny air wing. The military also said it had found the remains of three other prominent Tamil Tiger officials.

(Soundbite of celebration)

Even before the news of Prabhakaran's death, thousands of people were celebrating in Sri Lanka's streets with dances and fireworks. The island's Sinhalese majority is delighted by the collapse of one of the world's most sophisticated and determined guerrilla groups. A quarter of a century of civil war has taken a heavy toll on both sides. The final days of the Tamil Tigers have been particularly horrific. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the last four months. They were among a multitude of Tamils held as human shields by the guerrillas. Doctors in the war zone said many were killed by shells fired by the Sri Lankan army. So what's happened to those civilians now?

The Sri Lankan military said Sunday, over the past few days more than 50,000 of them left the war zone and that all civilians were finally out of there. It claimed to have rescued them. This hasn't been independently verified. The United Nations spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss, said the U.N. is still worried.

Mr. GORDON WEISS (United Nations Spokesman, Sri Lanka): Deeply concerned. We are deeply concerned for the conditions of the people who have come out. And we are very concerned at the idea that there might be civilians still inside the combat zone.

REEVES: Those Tamil civilians are now in the custody of the Sri Lankan military. Weiss says they are being processed before being taken to government internment camps.

Mr. WEISS: The U.N. has requested that we have early and full access to that population. That has not been granted so far, and we understand this morning that access is also being restricted for the United Nations and the International Red Cross to the internment camps in northern Sri Lanka.

REEVES: Tomorrow, Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapakse, will make a triumphant address to parliament announcing the end of the war. That's the easy part. There's international pressure for a war crimes investigation. And there's pressure, too, on the Sri Lankan government to find a lasting political solution to the island's conflict - one that addresses the grievances of the Tamil minority. Sandeep Dikshit covers Sri Lankan affairs for India's Hindu newspaper.

Mr. SANDEEP DIKSHIT (Correspondent, The Hindu; India): They might get rid of one terrorist group called the LTTE, but they don't get rid of the dissatisfaction, the humiliation, the sidelining that the Tamil population has been feeling ever since independence was given to Sri Lanka.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. 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.

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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