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Tamil Tigers' deputy leader dies in air strike by government forces

By Andrew Buncombe

A senior leader of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels and five of his colleagues were killed in an air strike by government forces yesterday.

S P Thamilselvan, who led the political wing of the separatist movement and is believed to have been its second-in-command, died when military aircraft bombed a meeting of the Tigers' hierarchy in their northern stronghold of Kilinochchi.

The Tigers announced the deaths on their website, saying: "With deep sorrow, we announce to the people of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil people living all over the world and the international community, that at 6am today the head of our organisation's political wing, Brigadier S P Thamilselvan, was killed by the Sri Lankan air force aerial bombing."

An aide to Mr Thamilselvan confirmed the news.

With the secretive Tamil Tigers leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, almost never seen in public, Mr Thamilselvan was the public face of the group's leadership who regularly met peace envoys envoys, diplomats and the media. Last year, he led a Tiger delegation to failed peace talks in Geneva. His death follows that of another key rebel spokesman, Anton Balasingham, last year.

The rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), have fought since 1983 for an independent homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority, following decades of discrimination by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority government. A ceasefire agreed in 2002 fell apart at the end of 2005. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in the 21 years of fighting.

Recent months have seen a fresh escalation of violence and only last week, the rebel suicide unit known as the Black Tigers stunned the Sri Lankan army by killing 14 troops at Anuradhapura air base. The attack, which also destroyed eight aircraft, embarrassed ministers as they struggled to explain how the rebels were able to infiltrate a key military installation.

The air strike which killed Mr Thamilselvan will undoubtedly boost the troops' morale. "This is a message that we know where their leaders are," said the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. "If we want we can take them one by one, so they must change their hideouts."

There is speculation that government forces are planning a fresh assault on the Tigers' self-declared autonomous state in the north. During the summer, a major push by the military seized territory in eastern Sri Lanka which was in rebel hands. On Thursday, about 30 Tigers were killed in a series of ground battles along the front line. In a separate assault yesterday, government warplanes attacked a camp allegedly used by the Black Tigers.

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