COLOMBO // The Tamil Tigers have given up their fight against a Sri Lankan government offensive and "have decided to silence our guns," a statement carried by the pro-rebel Tamilnet website said today. "This battle has reached its bitter end," said the statement from the rebels' chief of international relations, Selvarasa 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. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer." It comes just hours after the last remaining civilians trapped by the fighting in northern Sri Lanka poured out of the war zone, clearing the way for government forces to wipe out the remaining pockets of rebel resistance, the military said. Troops killed at least 70 rebels trying to escape the war zone today, the military claimed. However the Tamil Tigers' top commanders remained at large. The military said the rebel leadership was likely still in the war zone and planning a mass suicide. Thousands of Sri Lankans poured into the streets this morning, dancing and setting off celebratory fireworks, after the president Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory in the country's quarter-century civil war with the separatist rebels.
"We are celebrating a victory against terrorism," said Sujeewa Anthonis, a 32-year-old street hawker. As the fighting raged on in recent days, concerns mounted for the fate of the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone amid heavy shelling and intense fighting. But all 50,000 civilians fled the area over the past 72 hours, a military spokesman Brig Udaya Nanayakkara said today. With journalists and aid workers barred from the war zone, it was not possible to verify the assertion.
Early today, some insurgents tried to escape in six boats across a lagoon. But army troops thwarted the attempt, killing a large number of rebels, said Brig Nanayakkara. So far, 70 bodies of rebel fighters have been recovered, he said. * AP and AFP