Sri Lankan President Calls for Unity as Rebels Deny Leader Is Dead

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Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Prabhakaran's Corpse

Defence Ministry image of Prabhakaran's corpse

COLOMBO— President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for national unity Tuesday as he declared victory in the country’s 26-year war against the Tamil Tiger rebels, but provided few details about how he planned to heal the wounds of a conflict that has left more than a generation of ethnic Tamil marginalized.

In an ebullient speech to Parliament, Mr. Rajapaksa ceded little to Western nations that have criticized his handling of the war and that control the assistance he needs to rebuild areas formerly occupied by the Tamil Tigers. International aid agencies said their access to some battle zones, long off limits to journalists, had been curtailed in recent days.

Even as the president delivered his victory speech, there was confusion over Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the rebel chief whose fate was closely intertwined with the Tamil Tigers. A rebel official overseas said Mr. Prabhakaran was still alive, contradicting the government’s statement that he had been killed Monday.

Later in the day, however, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the army commander, said on state television that Mr. Prabhakaran’s body had been found and identified Tuesday.

State and private television stations repeatedly showed footage of soldiers surrounding what appeared to be Mr. Prabhakaran’s limp, plump body in trademark Tamil Tiger fatigues. A blue cloth covered his head, apparently to hide wounds, as the footage showed the mustachioed Mr. Prabhakaran staring with his eyes wide open. Soldiers also displayed what appeared to be a Tamil Tiger identity card, with the number “0:01.”

Despite the government’s declaration of victory, the United Nations refugee agency said that its access to facilities for refugees in Vavuniya, in the north, had been “greatly curtailed” and had affected its ability to “monitor and distribute aid.” The agency also called on the government to allocate more land for the construction of more shelters for the displaced and to improve conditions at 42 existing sites.

“We’re in discussions with the government to gain more access to key areas. It’s critical because of the condition of the people who have be coming out of the battle zones,” said Gordon Weiss, the United Nations spokesman in Sri Lanka. He added that the displaced who have yet to reach refugee facilities are likely to be suffering from greater malnutrition and battle injuries than those who have made it out of the battle zone.

Mr. Rajapaksa began his speech by reaching out to ethnic Tamil, delivering his opening remarks in Tamil before switching to the language of the Sinhalese majority.

“No differences of race, caste and religion should prevail here. Over the last 30 years, the L.T.T.E. has killed many people Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslims,” he said, referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. “The war against the L.T.T.E. is not a war against Tamil people. Our aim was to liberate our Tamil people from the clutches of the L.T.T.E.”

In what was Asia’s longest-running war, the Tamil Tigers practiced conventional warfare as well as suicide bombing to carve out a separate homeland in this island nation for the ethnic Tamil minority.

In defeating the Tamil Tigers, Mr. Rajapaksa succeeded where his predecessors had failed, a point he emphasized in his speech Tuesday.

“When I won the presidential election in 2005, there were L.T.T.E. police stations in the north and east,” he said. “There were Tiger courts. What was missing was only a Tiger parliament. Today we have finished all that forever.”

In recent months, the government deflected calls by Western governments and international aid agencies for a cease-fire and greater access to battle zones. While the Tamil Tigers were said to have used human shields as they retreated to a tiny redoubt in the northeast, the government angrily denied evidence that it had been shelling areas where tens of thousands of civilians were trapped.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Policy Alternatives here, said the president had “struck the right notes by making the distinction between the Tamil people and the Tamil Tigers.”

“What was missing was more details about the post-conflict phase,” Mr. Saravanamuttu said. “I would have liked to have seen him make a real commitment to a political settlement and human rights by addressing some of the serious allegations that have been made against the military.”

In his speech before Parliament, Mr. Rajapaksa called on economic investments in the formerly rebel-occupied northern and eastern sections for the country.

“What we need is not advice, but the cooperation to bring a better life to these people,” he said. “I believe that the world community will also extend that cooperation to us.”

Mr. Rajapaksa spoke in generalities about forging a peace settlement but gave few details beyond saying that it had to be acceptable to everyone in Sri Lanka.

“However, it cannot be an imported solution,” he said. “We do not have the time to be experimenting with the solutions suggested by other countries.”

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