Sri Lankan authorities questioned the new leader of the Tamil Tiger rebels Friday after he was arrested in Southeast Asia and flown to this island nation.
Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the insurgent group's former chief arms smuggler, assumed the leadership of the Tamil Tigers after government forces routed the rebels in May in northern Sri Lanka and killed their revered leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Pathmanathan was believed to be based in Southeast Asia in recent years and was one of the few rebel leaders to survive the government offensive that demolished the separatists' shadow state in northern Sri Lanka and ended the quarter-century civil war.
But as Pathmanathan, known by his nom de guerre KP, worked to revive the Tamil Tigers, the government pushed for his arrest.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels said in a statement that Pathmanathan was arrested Wednesday near a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A pro-rebel Web site said Pathmanathan had gone to the hotel to meet relatives of the group's slain political leader, Balasingham Nadesan. He left the room to answer a phone call, but did not return, it said.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters he could neither confirm nor deny the report.
"I don't have the facts with me. Let me find out first," he said.
Sri Lanka's Island newspaper, quoting anonymous sources, said Pathmanathan had been captured in Thailand.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn denied he was arrested there but said there were "reports that he has been traveling in and out of Thailand."
A Thai military intelligence official said Pathamanathan had been hiding in northern Thailand under a false identity in recent months. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the government did not want to acknowledge his presence in the country.
Boost for Sri Lanka's president
Sri Lankan defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella refused to provide details of the capture of Pathmanathan — who was wanted by Interpol — saying only that "he was arrested within the Asian region" and was being questioned in Sri Lanka.
"His existence at large created a doubt in the minds of ordinary people that the LTTE was alive and kicking," Rambukwella said. "His arrest shows that we are capable of demolishing any future emergence of the LTTE."
The arrest was expected to give President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his allies a boost ahead of local government elections Saturday in the northern towns of Jaffna and Vavuniya, just outside the rebels' former heartland.
The government said the polls proved it was returning democracy to the region, but it has been criticized for banning foreign media from traveling to the towns to cover the elections.
The arrest was a major blow to the rebel group's efforts to regroup after its devastating battlefield defeat.
Troubles for self-proclaimed leader
Soon after the defeat, Pathmanathan declared himself the new leader of the Tamil Tigers, swore off violence and worked to transform a group shunned internationally as a terror organization into a democratic movement for Tamil statehood. He cast himself as a defender of the nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians displaced by the fighting and held in government detention camps in the area.
However, some Tamil expatriates were furious with Pathmanathan for so swiftly acknowledging Prabhakaran's death in battle in May while many of the rebel chief's followers insisted he still lived.
In a sign Pathmanathan was having trouble uniting the Tamil community behind him, the rebel-linked TamilNet Web site did not even report his arrest.
Head of smuggling ring
Pathmanathan rose to prominence as the architect of the group's vast international smuggling ring of arms, drugs and possibly even people that Jane's Intelligence Review estimated earned the rebels up to $300 million a year.
Sri Lankan officials have told The Associated Press that Pathmanathan traveled with dozens of passports — including Indian, Egyptian, Malaysian — and bought weapons from countries including Thailand, Indonesia, Bulgaria and South Africa.
The rebels had fought a 25-year battle to carve out an independent state for minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.
Between 80,000-100,000 people were killed in the violence.