COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan fighter jets bombed a secret rebel communications center early Friday, killing the Tamil Tigers’ political chief and five others in a strike certain to deal a sharp blow to the guerrillas’ morale.
The killing of S.P. Tamilselvan, who acted as the public face of the rebels, was widely seen as a public relations coup for the government. But analysts feared it would further escalate the more than two-decade-old civil war and spark a cycle of political assassinations across this Indian Ocean island nation.
“This is a message that we know their leaders’ location,” Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Associated Press. “This confirms that our information is very accurate.”
Hours after the attack, the Tigers named the police chief of their de facto state as Tamilselvan’s replacement. The rebels announced in an e-mail that P. Nadesan, who was a delegate to earlier peace talks, would take over as head of their political wing.
The 6 a.m. airstrike blasted a compound deep inside rebel-held territory in northern Sri Lanka used as a communications center with Tamil sympathizers abroad, who contribute funds and arms to the separatists, said air force spokesman Group Capt. Ajantha Silva.
Hours later, the Tamil Tigers sent an e-mail to journalists announcing, “with deep sorrow,” that Tamilselvan had been killed in the attack. Rebel spokesmen did not answer repeated phone calls throughout the day seeking further comment.
Link to the outside world
With secretive Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran almost never seen publicly in recent years, the mustachioed Tamilselvan, assumed by some to be the group’s second in command, had become the rebel leadership’s link to the outside world.
He regularly held talks with peace envoys and diplomats, met with foreign humanitarian workers and gave interviews to the few international journalists allowed by the government to cross into rebel-held territory in the north. He led the group’s delegation at failed peace talks in Geneva last year.
Once a top fighter in the rebel force, Tamilselvan was injured in battle and forced to walk with a cane. Despite heading the Tamil Tigers’ political wing, he remained a brigadier, the highest rank for a Tamil Tiger, which is listed as a terror group by the U.S. and European Union.
In an interview with The Associated Press in July, he promised the rebels, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, would retaliate for the army’s capture of eastern Sri Lanka days before.
“(We will) weaken the military capacity of the government of Sri Lanka, which will invariably end up hitting economic targets as well,” he said.
More than 70,000 killed in violence
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, following decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese-controlled governments. More than 70,000 have been killed in the fighting.
Fighting between the two sides has escalated in recent weeks as government officials hinted they were preparing an offensive to capture the north and crush the rebels.
Tamilselvan’s death will not change the military balance in the war, but it gives the government an important political victory, said Jehan Perera, of Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council think tank.
“The government will be able to rally more people around it saying it is weakening the LTTE, because the popular belief is that Tamilselvan is a very powerful leader,” he said.
The attack is especially painful for the rebels, because it showed their inability to protect one of their top leaders, he said.
“Now they will retaliate at a very high level,” he said.
Five other leaders also killed
The airstrike Friday killed five other Tamil Tiger leaders, including a man the rebels identified as Lt. Col. Anpumani, also known as Alex, whom the military said was in charge of the communications center and was a key link to the Tamil diaspora.
The strike came less than two weeks after a team of Tamil Tiger suicide attackers infiltrated a Sri Lankan air force base, killed 14 troops and destroyed eight planes before being killed, an attack that badly humiliated the military.
Retired Air Marshall Harry Goonetilleke, a military analyst, said the timing of Friday’s strike made it appear to be retaliation for that attack.
“Now both sides may go for tit-for-tat attacks, and it’s not going to be helpful,” he said.
In a separate attack Friday, Sri Lankan jets pounded a camp belonging to the Black Tigers, the rebel group’s suicide fighters, in Iranamadu in the rebel-held Kilinochchi district, Silva said.
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