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Sri Lanka hails surrender of rebel pair

The ethos of the Tamil Tigers rebel group in Sri Lanka has always been to fight and die for the cause, namely, a homeland for the minority Tamils. So it wasn’t surprising that the government treated the surrender Wednesday of two rebel officials as a significant coup -- and further evidence of its imminent military victory.

The army moved quickly to score propaganda points after announcing that it was holding Tiger media coordinator Velayuthan Thayanithi, who used the alias Daya Master, and Velupillai Kumaru Pancharatnam, alias George Master, in custody after they approached government lines Wednesday morning with members of their families.

Their surrender came as “a rude shock to the outfit and its expatriates who have been pumping hard currency into” the rebels’ coffers, the army said in a statement.

The report, as with many aspects of the South Asia island’s protracted civil war, could not be confirmed. The military rarely allows reporters or international observers into the conflict zone, citing security concerns.

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The army recently has made significant advances in its quarter-century battle with the Tigers, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Most of the remaining militants are reportedly trapped in an area along the northern coast that is about the size of New York’s Central Park.

The army also said Wednesday that it had killed 43 guerrillas and suffered an undisclosed number of casualties, and that 81,423 civilians had fled the war zone within the previous 72 hours. The United Nations, civic groups and foreign governments have repeatedly expressed strong concerns about the welfare of the remaining noncombatants.

As more people emerge, the government and aid organizations are struggling to ramp up relief efforts.

“The people are all absolutely exhausted and had a tedious journey and came out with little or nothing, many wading through waist-deep water, bringing their children,” Suresh Bartlett, Sri Lanka director for the humanitarian group World Vision, said in a telephone interview Wednesday from the town of Vavuniya after visiting a camp for displaced people.

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Bartlett said the camp he saw is housing 25,000 people, and another of equal size is under construction. In addition, many schools and playgrounds near the conflict area are being used as temporary quarters.

Once most of the displaced have food, water and shelter, the focus will shift to addressing counseling and emotional needs of the stressed population, he said.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, the capital, said the government had ample warning that tens of thousands of fleeing civilians would need help -- especially given its repeated calls for noncombatants to vacate rebel-held areas -- and should have addressed humanitarian issues earlier.

“The facilities made available for people coming out is woefully inadequate,” he said. “They were still woefully unprepared.”

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The fact that rebel leaders are starting to give themselves up suggests the organization is conceding defeat, he added.

Among the highest-profile Tiger defectors was Karuna Amman, a former eastern commander who joined the government side in 2004. In general, however, the Tigers have been known for their discipline and use of innovative methods, some of which have been copied by other militant groups.

One example is the Tigers’ development of a suicide vest that detonates when its wearer lifts his or her hands in a sign of surrender, helping to ensure that far fewer Tiger suicide bombers were taken alive than Palestinians bombers, for instance.

The two rebels who surrendered Wednesday had been in trusted positions. According to local reports, Daya Master was a private English tutor before he joined the Tigers. Initially, his main job was to meet dignitaries from the south as part of the group’s bid to bolster political support. Eventually he caught the eye of Tiger leader and founder Velupillai Prabhakaran and was asked to head the media and propaganda operation.

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George Master was a government postmaster before switching sides. He served as a translator and interpreter for senior rebel officials, taking trips abroad for peace talks that ultimately proved unsuccessful.

The reported surrender of the two officials Wednesday has fueled speculation on the whereabouts of Prabhakaran.

“You hear a lot of speculation,” Bartlett said, “but nothing can be confirmed.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Pavitra Ramaswamy in The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.


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