Colombo: Tamil rebels admitted defeat in their 25-year-old war with the Sri Lankan government on Sunday, offering to lay down their guns as government forces swept across their last strongholds in the northeast.
The government rejected the last-ditch call for a cease-fire, saying the thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone all have escaped to safety and there was no longer any reason to stop the battle.
With the war nearing its end, Sri Lankans poured into the streets in spontaneous celebration. President Mahinda Rajapaksa scheduled a nationally televised news conference for Tuesday morning at Parliament, where he was expected to tell the nation the war was over.
The fate of the Tamil Tigers' top commanders remained unclear, including the whereabouts of the reclusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
A senior military official said troops found the bodies of several rebel fighters who had committed suicide Sunday when troops surrounded them. The bodies were suspected of being Prabhakaran and his deputies, but the military was still trying to confirm their identities, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The rebels, who once controlled a wide swath of the north, have been routed by government forces in recent months. On Sunday, Tamil Tiger suicide bombers targeted troops clearing out the last pockets of rebel resistance in the war zone and troops killed at least 70 rebels trying to flee, the military said.
LTTE silences guns
On Sunday afternoon, the tattered and nearly defeated rebel group offered to lay down its arms, saying it was acting to protect the wounded in the war zone.
"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."
Pathmanathan said the bodies of thousands of dead and wounded civilians lay on the battlefield.
Media Minister Anura Yapa dismissed the appeal, saying government forces had rescued all the civilians.
"We are looking after those people. We want to free this country from the terrorist LTTE," he said, referring to the group by its formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
With most journalists and aid workers barred from the war zone, it was not possible to verify the accounts of either side.
Troops on Sunday killed at least 70 rebels trying to escape the 0.4-square mile (one-square kilometer) patch of land that government troops have surrounded, the military said.
Thousands of Sri Lankans danced, set off celebratory fireworks and beat on drums in celebration Sunday after Rajapaksa made an initial declaration of victory in the country's civil war with the separatist rebels.
"We are celebrating a victory against terrorism," said Sujeewa Anthonis, a 32-year-old street hawker.
As the fighting raged on in recent days, concerns mounted for the fate of the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone amid heavy shelling and intense fighting.
But 63,000 civilians fled the area over the past 72 hours, clearing the way for the government to finish off the rebels, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said Sunday.