COLOMBO ~ Sri Lanka celebrated victory over the Tamil Tigers with a national holiday on Wednesday as the army hunted down fugitive rebels, shooting dead eight thought to have escaped from the final battle.
Hundreds of troops were deployed in the Muliyawaikal area where the corpse of Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was found after the fighting ended with a showdown in the jungle on Monday, officials said.
“They are doing clearing operations,” defence spokesman Lakshman Hulugalle said as more bodies were gathered for identification.
The eight rebels were shot in two incidents more than 130 kilometres south of where the Tigers made their last stand in the far northeast, the army said.
The killings were the first since the government claimed victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and police stepped up security across the island to guard against revenge attacks from surviving guerrillas.
In a symbolic gesture, the army fired heavy guns into the air to mark the official end of their operations, the military said. Soldiers observed two minutes’ silence to show respect to their fallen colleagues.
More than 400 dead rebels, including several female fighters, have been recovered from the battlefield where Prabhakaran died, according to military officials.
Prabhakaran’s eldest son, Charles Anthony, was among those killed in the area, but the military had no information about the leader’s wife, Madiwadani, or their other two children.
“The process of identifying the other Tiger dead bodies is now going on and we want to see if any other close relatives or associates of Prabhakaran are among the dead,” a military official said.
The defence ministry said seven more dead Tiger leaders had been identified on Wednesday.
Sri Lankan television repeatedly broadcast images of what it said was the body of Prabhakaran, showing the upper section of a corpse which was dressed in camouflage fatigues.
The face was intact, with the eyes wide open, and bore a clear resemblance to the stocky rebel leader.
As many Sri Lankans celebrated the national holiday, the United Nations announced that it estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people had been killed in the war over nearly 30 years.
The UN and human rights groups have blamed indiscriminate shelling by the military for causing many civilian casualties in the push for victory, while accusing the rebels of using tens of thousands of people as a “human shield.”
Relief agencies have also become increasingly frustrated at the lack of access to anyone wounded in the war zone or to tens of thousands of displaced Tamil civilians detained in the overcrowded government-run camps.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is to visit Sri Lanka on Friday and Saturday to lobby for long-term reconciliation on the mainly Sinhalese island.
He told reporters in Geneva he was concerned about the welfare and safety of civilians, and said that any serious allegations of war crimes “should be properly investigated.”
Under international pressure to reach out to the Tamil minority, President Mahinda Rajapakse vowed on Tuesday that the island’s deep-rooted ethnic divisions would be tackled.
“All should live with equal rights. They should live without any fear or doubt,” he told parliament. “Let us all be united.”
Rajapakse joined in the street celebrations in the capital Colombo and visited temples after his soldiers’ victory.
Ban’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, who was in Sri Lanka, was forced to turn back from a visit to war-displaced civilians in the island’s north on Wednesday when his helicopter ran into bad weather, officials said.