Kilinochichi: The leader of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers is trapped in a small strip of jungle and intends to make a final stand with his surviving forces, an army commander said Friday.
The commander said a rebel spokesman who surrendered to government troops earlier in the week had reported that Velupillai Prabhakaran, 54, was still in charge of his cornered and depleted separatist army in the island’s northeast.
The Tamil Tiger spokesman “says that Prabhakaran was living inside and that he will be there until the last moment,” Brigadier Shavendra Silva told reporters.
“But, even at the last minute, he will try to escape,” said the commander, who is spearheading the offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Prabhakaran has not been seen for 18 months, and speculation has been rife that he may have been killed or already fled the island.
The fighting has sparked a wave of international concern for the fate of 50,000 people still said by the United Nations to be trapped in the conflict zone.
The UN also estimates that as many as 6,500 civilians may have been killed and another 14,000 wounded in the fighting so far this year, diplomats said.
Reporters taken by the military to the front line at Puttumatalan, about an hour’s drive along a bombed out road from the former Tiger capital of Kilinochchi, saw smoke rising from the last patch of land where the rebels are encircled.
Intermittent gun fire and explosions could be heard in the area, but journalists were not allowed to speak with any of the tens of thousands of civilians who managed to escape the conflict zone earlier this week.
Silva told reporters in Kilinochchi, 330 kilometres (180 miles) north of Colombo, that there were many guerrillas who wanted to surrender.
The army says the remnants of the LTTE — who once controlled a third of the island — are confined to a 10 square kilometre (around four square mile) strip of coastline.
“My soldiers are suffering casualties because they cannot fire (heavy weapons),” Silva told reporters, insisting his troops were under instructions to “maintain zero civilian casualties.”
The LTTE have been widely accused of using civilians as human shields. The island’s hawkish administration is also facing mounting international demands for a truce as a way to spare civilian lives.
The government, however, has steadfastly resisted appeals to end its offensive, and has also turned down requests to send humanitarian teams into the area.
As well as blocking most aid agencies, the Sri Lankan authorities have herded escaping Tamil civilians into closely-guarded internment camps so they can weed out suspected rebels.
“It would not be sensible to let aid agencies into the conflict zone because there is already an army operation in progress to rescue civilians,” Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse told the BBC.
However a Sri Lankan government official who declined to be named acknowledged Colombo was under “tremendous international pressure” — with neighbour India also sending an emergency diplomatic mission.
Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan held talks Friday with President Mahinda Rajapakse, and New Delhi said the officials would stress the severity of the humanitarian crisis.
“These killings must stop. The Sri Lankan government has a responsibility to protect its own citizens and the LTTE must stop its barbaric attempt to hold civilians hostage,” Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in a statement.
Official sources here said the Indians had discussed the humanitarian situation, but did not directly press for a ceasefire. There was no immediate comment from the Indian side.
India is currently in the middle of a month-long general election and the government is under pressure to respond to the concerns of around 60 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu — a key swing state in the south — over the fate of their fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka.