|Tiger leader still in Sri Lanka-defence secretary|
|Tuesday, 17 February 2009|
By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO (Reuters) - The separatist Tamil Tigers' leader is hiding in Sri Lanka and holding thousands of civilians as a shield to buy time to either flee or make his last stand, Sri Lanka's defence secretary said on Monday.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the top civil servant in charge of the military, said the uncertain future of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief Velluppillai Prabhakaran was responsible for the plight of civilians in the remaining rebel-held area.
"He is still here, but he must be planning to go out with other leaders. They have not decided things -- whether to go, whether to remain here, whether to commit suicide," Rajapaksa said in an interview with Reuters.
Based on intelligence reports collected from surrendered LTTE fighters, civilians who have escaped fighting and electronic intercepts, Rajapaksa said the people were being used to buy time.
"They will keep these civilians as a shield and then once they escape, they will just be let go," said Rajapaksa, who is brother to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
A combat veteran, he is widely credited as the architect of what is so far the most successful military effort against the LTTE in a war that started in earnest in 1983 and is now one of the Asia's longest-running rebellions.
Analysts say Sri Lanka's military is close to dealing a death blow to the LTTE, having penned them into an area of 142 square km (55 sq miles) in the Indian Ocean island's northeast after a series of rapid victories.
It was not clear where the LTTE's top ranks were planning to go, but Rajapaksa said he expects some to seek political asylum after escaping via established human smuggling networks.
"They can go to Australia, for example. Who knows Soosai or Pottu Amman there? You just give any name and say the Sri Lankan government burned my house and all those things, and you are there -- you are in Australia," he said.
Soosai is the head of the Sea Tigers naval wing, and Amman is the LTTE's intelligence head.
Aid agencies, a growing list of nations and Sri Lanka's government say civilians have said the LTTE is keeping non-combatants in the war zone forcibly, which the rebels deny.
Aid agencies estimate the number inside the war zone to be around 200,000. Rajapaksa said there were now 50,000-70,000 people. A flood of 30,000 had left in the 10 days since troops reached a former no-fire zone demarcated by the army, he said.
Witnesses -- including Catholic nuns -- who escaped have said the Tigers have since then increasingly been shooting people who tried to flee, and forced many deeper into the war zone.
"The LTTE knew that in another two or three days there would be nobody left," Rajapaksa said.
Rajapaksa acknowledged civilians faced grave danger, but said soldiers have been prohibited from using artillery and mortars near them. That has produced a much slower pace of fighting.
"This is a very clear indication of all the precautions we are taking. We are taking casualties to prevent civilians getting hurt. This is a factor we are very concerned about. Otherwise we could have used so much artillery and just moved in," he said.
He also said that it was possible innocent civilians were being killed but said the figures given by the LTTE and sympathisers were being inflated to create a propaganda edge.
"There may be civilian casualties, but not mass (casualties)," Rajapaksa said.The real figures undoubtedly include a number of dead guerrillas who were dressed as civilians and therefore could not be differentiated from non-combatants, Rajapaksa said. "In one month, we had 1,000 injured. Considering our firepower and the training standards of our troops, there should be more LTTE casualties. Where are these casualties, these bodies? Can anybody say there are no LTTE casualties?" he said. (Editing by Alex Richardson)
|Last Updated ( Friday, 09 October 2009 )|
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