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Tamil rebels concede defeat in Sri Lanka

Tamil rebels last night conceded defeat in Sri Lanka's 25-year-old civil war as government forces closed the net on the separatists' last redoubt in a patch of sand and jungle.

As President Mahinda Rajapaksa prepared to declare total victory in parliament tomorrow, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam issued a dramatic statement from its diplomatic chief.

"This battle has reached its bitter end," ran the statement in the name of Selvarajah Pathmanathan. "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."

The army said last night that the leaders of the LTTE separatist group were boxed into less than one square kilometre and that more than 50,000 civilians had fled the conflict area. It did not provide details of casualties amid reports from aid agencies that hundreds had been killed or wounded in the latest fighting.

Earlier, the LTTE made what appeared to be another ceasefire offer, saying it had decided to enter into peace talks. But there was no word on its elusive leader and the main protagonist of Sri Lanka's civil war, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who the army insists is still in the conflict area.

"Troops have already rescued all the civilians held hostage by the terrorists and taken them to safer areas," the defence ministry website said yesterday. Sri Lanka is painting the defeat of the LTTE as an unprecedented achievement against a proscribed terrorist outfit.

But the United Nations, Barack Obama, US president, other western governments and human rights groups say the military's final push against the group has exacted an unacceptable toll on Tamil civilians.

The UN is expected to start an inquiry into possible war crimes, with more than 20,000 civilians believed to have been killed since January. Aid groups allege most of the civilians have been killed by military shellfire and air strikes - charges the government denies.

The LTTE herded more than 250,000 civilians into its diminishing pocket in the island's north-east, holding them at gunpoint.

The government has consistently underestimated the number of civilians trapped in the area, earlier saying there were only 70,000 but now admitting at least 250,000 have fled to refugee camps since January.

Independent verification of reports from the battlefield are impossible, as journalists and aid agencies are prohibited from operating there, other than the Red Cross.

The army said an attempted break-out yesterday across a lagoon by LTTE boats might have been aimed at aiding the rebel leader to escape.


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