Sri Lankan rebels say they will lay down arms
The Tamil Tiger rebels offered to lay down their arms Sunday after Sri Lanka's military declared victory in the 25 year civil war, but aid groups warn of a humanitarian crisis.
"This battle has reached its bitter end," rebel official Selvarasa Pathmanathan said in a statement. "It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them. We remain with one last choice -- to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns."
A later statement on the Tamilnet website said the Tigers were "prepared to silence its guns if that is what needed by the international community to save the life and dignity of the Tamil people".
According to Pathmanathan, some 3,000 civilians have died in the last 24 hours and many wounded civilians are still trapped in the war zone.
The Sri Lankan government spurned the ceasefire offer on claims that the last civilians had fled the war zone, leaving soldiers and rebels free to continue fighting.
"We are looking after those people," Media Minister Anura Yapa said, referring to the civilians. "We want to free this country from the terrorist LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)."
Military officials said Sunday that rebels were still battling in the tiny strip of land -- measuring less than one square kilometre - on the northeastern coast that soldiers had driven them to during intense fighting in the last few weeks.
Tiger suicide bombers attacked troops that were attempting to rid the coast of the remaining rebels. While the military did not immediately provide information on any troop casualties, soldiers claimed to have killed at least 70 rebels trying to escape the area by boat.
It is still unclear if the Tigers' reclusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, remained on the island in the last days of fighting or if he had fled overseas.
According to a senior military official, soldiers found the bodies of several rebel fighters who committed suicide when they were surrounded.
It is believed that Prabhakaran and his top lieutenants wore cyanide pills in order to kill themselves should they face capture.
The military is still trying to confirm the identities of the dead, said the official, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
News that a war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians had come to an end had Sri Lankans celebrating in the streets.
"We are celebrating a victory against terrorism," said Sujeewa Anthonis, a 32-year-old street hawker, as Sri Lankans set off fireworks and beat drums to celebrate the war's end.
On Saturday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory over the rebels. He has scheduled a new conference to Tuesday morning, where he will likely declare the war officially over.
Humanitarian crisis looms
Should hostilities cease, the government will still have a massive humanitarian crisis on its hands, experts say.
More than 50,000 civilians have fled the war zone in the last 72 hours and crowded into poorly equipped and overcrowded displaced persons camps, James Elder of UNICEF told CTV Newsnet on Sunday.
According to Elder, many of the civilians are in dire need of food, water and medicine, having long been caught in the crossfire between government and rebel soldiers.
"People arrive sick, they arrive malnourished, many with untended wounds of war," Elder said in a telephone interview from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.
"What we will see this week is the number of people in the camps will essentially quadruple from what it was just a few short weeks ago and we will have around a quarter of a million people. This latest influx of people will have endured extreme conditions, which will put an even greater stress on the systems of health, sanitation and water in what are already grossly overcrowded camps."
International aid groups have claimed the rebels used civilians as human shields during the conflict. However, the Tigers deny this and accuse the government of firing on its own citizens.
A UN report estimates that 7,000 civilians were killed and more than 16,000 wounded between Jan. 20 and May 7. Since then, local doctors say another 1,000 were killed in heavy shelling.
Elder said the Sri Lankan government will have to devise a plan for releasing non-combatants from the camps, so they can quickly return to their homes and re-start their lives.
The rebels, who once controlled a considerable portion of land in northern Sri Lanka, have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the minority Tamil population.
The Tigers have been blamed for hundreds of suicide attacks, including the 1991 killing of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Canada, the United States, the European Union and India have labelled the Tigers a terrorist organization.
After years of fighting to stalemates, the Sri Lankan military launched a massive offensive late last year. Troops captured the rebels' administrative headquarters in Kilinochchi in January and vowed to drive the Tigers out of the country.
With files from The Associated Press