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Arrest a big blow to Tamil Tigers

Sri Lankan officials question new rebel leader

By Bharatha Mallawarachi
Associated Press / August 8, 2009

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - The arrest of the Tamil Tigers’s new leader has dealt a major blow to the rebels’ efforts to regroup and push on with their separatist struggle after being routed by Sri Lankan forces, the government said yesterday.

It was also a major public relations coup for President Mahinda Rajapaksa ahead of elections today in two northern towns that he billed as the first seeds of democracy along the former war zone.

Sri Lankan authorities yesterday were questioning Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the former chief arms smuggler for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and its new chief, after he was arrested in Southeast Asia and flown to Sri Lanka.

“His existence at large created a doubt in the minds of ordinary people that the LTTE was alive and kicking,’’ Sri Lankan defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said.

“His arrest shows that we are capable of demolishing any future emergence of the LTTE.’’

Pathmanathan, known by the nom de guerre KP, had been working to turn the remnants of the violent insurgent group into a peaceful liberation movement after the government routed the rebels on the battlefield in May and killed their revered leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The rebels, who had been fighting to create a separate nation for minority Tamils for more than a quarter century, had controlled a shadow state in parts of northern Sri Lanka that Prabhakaran ran as a virtual dictatorship.

Today, the government is to hold elections in the towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna, which lay just outside the rebels’ former stronghold.

Rajapaksa has hailed the elections as a first step in ushering in democracy to the area. But the government has come under fire for refusing to allow foreign media into the towns - which are sealed to outsiders - to cover the vote.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said the decision to bar the media “dashes any hope of a transparent election.’’

Armed paramilitary groups reportedly have a strong presence in both towns, and the residents appear disengaged from the vote - or afraid - after more than a quarter century of warfare.

A poll taken late last month by the Center for Policy Alternatives, a public policy group, showed that 67 percent of eligible voters in Jaffna were either undecided or refused to say for whom they would vote.

Nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians who fled the war zone during the final months of fighting also remain in camps near the two towns.

The government is also holding an election in Uva province and is likely to get a boost from Pathmanathan’s arrest.

The circumstances of the capture of the smuggler wanted by Interpol remained in dispute yesterday.