COLOMBO (AFP) — Sri Lanka struck a major blow against the Tamil Tigers Friday, killing the rebels' political chief and top peace negotiator in a surgical air strike carried out by the military.
S.P. Thamilselvan, 40, the public face of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), died with five others in an attack by the Sri Lankan air force on rebel-held territory, the Tigers reported.
He was the highest-ranking member of the LTTE to be killed by government forces in the 35-year separatist campaign and his death is widely seen as a major setback to the Tamil separatists.
The defence ministry said it had targeted a venue where rebel leaders were meeting and scored a direct hit.
The LTTE immediately declared three days of mourning and named Thamilselvan a brigadier, the highest rank conferred posthumously to any guerrilla by elusive supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran since the group's formation in 1972.
Prabhakaran, who turns 53 on November 26, named his police chief, P. Nadesan, to take charge of the LTTE's political wing, Tiger spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiriyan said in a statement.
Nadesan, a Sri Lankan police defector who joined the Tigers and later became a member of the Tiger peace negotiating team, will continue his work with the Tiger police unit as well, Ilanthiriyan said.
Friday's air attack followed intense fighting along de facto borders, with both the government and the Tigers claiming that they inflicted heavy losses against each other.
There is no independent verification of the war casualties.
Thamilselvan, who led a peace negotiating team at talks with the Sri Lankan government that were hosted by Switzerland last year, had emerged as a de facto number two in the LTTE.
The Tiger proxies in the Sri Lankan parliament, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) said the killing marked the end of the faltering peace process.
"The targeted killing of the LTTE's chief negotiator, in our view, means there can no longer be any illusion as to the state's interest in negotiating a lasting solution.
"In this context, the Tamil community will be closely watching the actions of the international community regarding its repeatedly stated commitment to a negotiated peace," the TNA said in a statement.
The last round of talks led by Thamilselvan in October 2006 ended in failure. There has been continuing bloodshed in the fight for a Tamil homeland that has left tens of thousands dead since 1972.
Military officials said Friday they had received a report of a top-level gathering near the northern town of Kilinochchi, the political capital of the LTTE, where Thamilselvan was based, and ordered the air raids.
The defence ministry said "pinpoint" bombing took out Thamilselvan and five others.
"The killing of Thamilselvan is a big blow to the LTTE politically," said former Tamil militant turned political leader Dharmalingam Sithadthan. "It is also a big morale booster for the air force after their big loss last month."
Tamil Tiger rebels staged a devastating attack against a key air base on October 22 and wiped out virtually the entire fleet of spy planes, inflicting the biggest single loss on the air force.
Thamilselvan had also been an active combatant who was injured while leading an offensive on an army camp in 1993, and survived a 2002 bomb attack said to have been carried out by Sri Lankan security forces.
"(The) head of our organisation's political division, Brigadier S.P. Thamilselvan, was killed by the Sri Lankan air force aerial bombing," the LTTE said in a statement.
The guerrillas named five other victims of Friday's strike, including a senior LTTE photographer who had travelled to Europe, Thailand and Japan with Thamilselvan to attend Norwegian-brokered peace talks since 2002.
Thamilselvan's killing follows the death of former chief negotiator Anton Balasingham last December.
He had been an understudy of Balasingham -- the key contact for Norwegian peacebrokers -- who died of cancer at his home in London.
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