COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka declared Monday it had crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels, killing their chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and ending his three-decade quest for an independent homeland for minority Tamils.
State television broke into its regular programming to announce Prabhakaran's death, and the government information department sent a text message to cell phones across the country confirming he was killed along with top deputies, Soosai and Pottu Amman.
The announcement sparked mass celebrations around the country, and people poured into the streets of Colombo dancing and singing.
Prabhakaran's death has been seen as crucial in bringing closure to this war-wracked Indian Ocean island nation. If he had escaped, he could have used his large international smuggling network and the support of Tamil expatriates to spark a new round of guerrilla warfare here. His death in battle could still turn him into a martyr for other Tamil separatists.
Sri Lanka's army chief, Lt. Gen. Sareth Fonseka, said on television that his troops routed the last rebels from the northern war zone Monday morning and were working to identify Prabhakaran's body from among the dead.
"We can announce very responsibly that we have liberated the whole country from terrorism," he told state television. It was widely presumed Fonseka was waiting for President Mahinda Rajapaksa to announce Prabhakaran's death.
Fonseka and the commanders of the other security forces were scheduled to formally inform the president of the victory Monday evening.
Senior military officials said troops closed in on Prabhakaran and his final cadre early Monday.
He and his top deputies then drove an armor-plated van accompanied by a bus filled with rebel fighters toward approaching Sri Lankan forces, sparking a two-hour firefight, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Troops eventually fired a rocket at the van, ending the battle, they said. Troops pulled Prabhakaran's body from the van and identified it as that of the rebel leader, they said. The attack also killed Soosai, the head of the rebels' naval wing, and Pottu Amman, the group's feared intelligence commander, the officials said.
Tamils Had Hoped for an Independent State
Suren Surendiran, a spokesman for the British Tamils' Forum, the largest organization for expatriate Tamils in Britain, said the community was in despair.
"The people are very somber and very saddened. But we are ever determined and resilient to continue our struggle for Eelam," he said, invoking the name of the Tamils hoped-for independent state. "We have to win the freedom and liberation of our people."
But in Colombo, which had suffered countless rebel bombings, people set of fireworks, danced and sang in the streets.
"Myself and most of my friends gathered here have narrowly escaped bombs set off by the Tigers. Some of our friends were not lucky," said Lal Hettige, 47, a businessman celebrating in Colombo's outdoor market. "We are happy today to see the end of that ruthless terrorist organization and its heartless leader. We can live in peace after this."
The chubby, mustachioed Prabhakaran turned what was little more than a street gang in the late 1970s into one of the world's most feared insurgencies. He demanded unwavering loyalty and gave his followers vials of cyanide to wear around their necks and bite into in case of capture.
At the height of his power, he controlled a shadow state in northern Sri Lankan and commanded a force that including an infantry, backed by artillery, a significant naval wing and a nascent air force.
Black Tigers Suicide Squad
He also controlled a suicide squad known as the Black Tigers that was blamed for scores of deadly attacks. The rebels were branded a terror group and condemned for forcibly conscripting child soldiers.
Earlier, the military announced it had killed several top rebel leaders, including Prabhakaran's son Charles Anthony, also a rebel leader. The military said special forces also found the bodies of the rebels' political wing leader, Balasingham Nadesan, the head of the rebels' peace secretariat, Seevaratnam Puleedevan, and one of the top military leaders, known as Ramesh.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority after years of marginalization at the hands of the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.
Government forces ousted the rebels from their shadow state in the north in recent months and brought the group to its knees. Thousands of civilians were reportedly killed in the recent fighting.
Senior diplomats had appealed for a humanitarian cease-fire in recent weeks to safeguard the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone, but the government refused, and denied persistent reports it was shelling the densely populated war zone.
EU Will Call for War Crimes Investigation
Diplomats in Brussels said Monday the European Union will endorse a call for an independent war crimes investigation into the killing of civilians in Sri Lanka. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions were ongoing.
The rebels were also accused of using the civilians as human shields and shooting at some who fled.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband says there have been "very grave allegations" of war crimes on both sides of the conflict adding "they should be properly investigated."
The U.N. said 7,000 civilians were killed in the fighting between Jan. 20 and May 7. Health officials in the area said more than a 1,000 others were killed since then.
On Monday, more than a thousand angry Sri Lankans protested outside the British Embassy in Colombo, pelting it with rocks and eggs and burning an effigy of Miliband and throwing it inside the compound. Protesters held posters calling Miliband a "white Tiger," and several tried to climb the embassy's high walls.
Associated Press writers Krishan Francis and Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.
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