Sri Lanka Hails Surrender of Rebel Pair

By Mark Magnier
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

NEW DELHI -- 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 quickly moved to score propaganda points after announcing it was holding Tiger media coordinator Velayuthan Thayanithi, who employed 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 LTTE coffers," the army said in a statement, using the initials of the rebel group.

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

In recent months, the army 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 a sliver of land along the northern coast roughly the size of New York's Central Park.

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

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," said Suresh Bartlett, Sri Lanka director for the humanitarian group World Vision, in a telephone interview from the town of Vavuniya on Wednesday after visiting a camp for displaced persons.

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

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

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 Tiger-held areas. As a result, it should have focused more on humanitarian issues earlier.

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

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

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

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 few Tiger suicide bombers were captured alive.

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 group's media and propaganda operation.

George Master started out as a government postmaster before switching sides, serving as a translator and interpreter for senior rebel officials, including trips abroad as part of delegations taking part in ultimately unsuccessful peace talks.

The reported capture of the two officials Wednesday has fueled further speculation on the whereabouts and ultimate fate of Prabhakaran. "You hear a lot of speculation," Bartlett said, "but nothing can be confirmed."

^Pavitra Ramaswamy in the Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.<

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