| S.P. Thamilselvan. (AFP)
Nov. 2: Tamil Tiger extremists have suffered a major blow in their 24-year fight for independence after the organisation’s political chief and de facto number two was killed in a dawn raid by Sri Lankan air force jets.
The death of S.P. Thamilselvan, who was the public face of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and represented the organisation at peace talks in Geneva last year, marks a dangerous escalation in the conflict which has claimed 5,000 lives since mid-2006.
Friday’s air raids near the de facto rebel capital of Kilinochchi killed five other Tigers and also targeted a camp of elite Black Tiger suicide fighters.
The strike on the rebel hideout came a week after the Sri Lankan government suffered a humiliating defeat when the Black Tigers attacked an air force base, destroying military aircraft.
Sri Lanka’s defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who faced calls for his resignation following the air base attack, was triumphant and warned that his government would now pick off the Tiger leadership “one by one”.
“This is just a message, that we know where their leaders are. I know the locations of all the leaders, that if we want we can take them one by one, so they must change their hideouts,” he said.
Sri Lanka’s stock market rallied at the news of Thamilselvan’s death. However, independent analysts said the killing would only further escalate the conflict as the Tigers prepared their inevitable retaliation.
“The loss of Thamilselvan in this way would be a very big setback to any hope of peace talks in the near future — which in any case were not apparent either,” said Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, a non-partisan advocacy group.
“It just makes it an even bleaker scenario. It is a very bad situation,” he added. “What we can look forward to now is for the LTTE to seek to even the score.”
The LTTE, which says it is seeking to carve out a separate state in north and east Sri Lanka for minority Tamils, has repeatedly said it must establish “balance of power” after military setbacks, a code for retaliation.
Since his election on a “war ticket” two years ago, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan President, has ignored international pressure to find a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict, pressing instead for a military solution.
After a series of victories in the east of the country, there has been growing speculation that the Sri Lankan armed forces are now preparing for a major offensive to drive the Tigers from their northern stronghold.
Thamilselvan’s killing was confirmed on a rebel website that announced his death “with deep sorrow... to the people of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil people living all over the world and the international community.”
Although a political negotiator for the LTTE, which is led by the elusive Velupillai Prabhakaran, Thamilselvan had been an active combatant, leading an offensive on an army camp in 1993 and surviving a bomb attack in 2002.
In recent years, while Thamilselvan acted as the de facto prime minister for the LTTE, he still carried the rank of “Brigadier”, the highest in the Tamil Tiger military hierarchy.
Thamilselvan’s death, following that of his mentor, the former LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham who died in London from cancer last December, leaves the senior Tiger leadership looking increasingly isolated.