NEW DELHI — The Tamil Tigers admitted defeat Sunday in their quarter-century struggle against the Sri Lankan government and offered to lay down their weapons to protect those still alive.
However, military officials rejected the offer as a last-minute act of desperation. They said fighting continued, and the army was bracing for suicide bomb attacks.
Far from the battlefield, thousands of Sri Lankans danced in the streets of Colombo, celebrating the stunning collapse of one of the world's most sophisticated insurgencies. The Tamil Tigers once controlled a shadow state complete with courts, police and a tax system across a wide swath of the north.
Sri Lanka's military said today that the eldest son of the top Tamil Tiger rebel leader was killed in fighting. Military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara said army troops found the body of Charles Anthony, the son of Velupillai Prabhakaran. The military also said it had killed the head of the rebels' political wing, Balasingham Nadesan, and two other top leaders in the war zone.
But with Prabhakaran still at large, the threat of renewed guerrilla warfare remained. Several rebel fighters committed suicide when they were surrounded, but it wasn't clear whether Prabhakaran was among them.
The battered remnants of the rebel force, which has been fighting for a homeland for Sri Lanka's marginalized Tamil minority, reportedly were trapped in a 300-square-yard area along the northern coast of the island.
On TamilNet, a pro-Tiger Web site, the decimated rebel group — known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — said it was putting down its weapons.
"This battle has reached its bitter end," rebel official Selvarasa Pathmanathan was quoted as saying in the online 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," he added. "We have decided to silence our guns."
But military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said TamilNet has a history of lying. On the ground, Tiger rebels continue to attack soldiers in the conflict zone, he said.
Nanayakkara insisted that all civilians were now out of the conflict zone. With very little territory left to capture, he said, the army is confident it will be able to seize the remaining fighters shortly. Whether they surrender, commit suicide or die fighting is their choice, he said.
The Tamil Tigers have been accused of using civilians as human shields, while the army, in turn, has been accused of firing indiscriminately. Both sides have denied the charges.
As the fighting raged in recent days, concerns mounted for the fate of any civilians still trapped in the war zone amid heavy shelling and intense fighting. Nanayakkara, the military spokesman, said Sunday that 63,000 civilians had left the area over the preceding 96 hours, many brought out in government vehicles, clearing the way for the final showdown.
But Pathmanathan said the bodies of thousands of wounded and slain civilians lay strewn across the war zone.
With most journalists and aid workers barred from the war zone, it was not possible to verify the accounts of either side.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.