06 November 2007
The death of the Tamil Tigers' political head and chief negotiator in a Sri Lankan air force bombing raid confirms that the island is back in the grip of a full-blooded civil war.
Seen as clever and wily, S P Tamilselvan was the 43-year-old public face of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the group fighting for a separate state for Sri Lanka's 3 million Tamils. His death in an air strike at 6am (12.30am GMT) was confirmed by the LTTE on their website.
Tamilselvan was a key figure. Although the US, Britain and India all describe the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation, he had hosted diplomats in the organisation's "peace secretariat" in the jungles of northern Sri Lanka. A soldier as well as a thinker, Tamilselvan was injured twice in battle and walked with a stick into press conferences.
However there will be few tears shed in Colombo - Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is undoubtedly delighted with the decapitation strategy. His brother, the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, said the Sri Lankan air force would pick off the rest of the Tigers' leaders "one by one".
Such talk merely underlines the depths to which Sri Lanka has sunk. The tear-shaped island, no bigger than Ireland, is wracked by war: human rights abuses, torture, abductions and extrajudicial murders have mushroomed as the fighting intensifies.
However the loss of Tamilselvan is unlikely to unnerve the Tigers' elusive leader Velupillai Pirapaharan. He has waged war on the state for more than two decades and has watched countless friends and allies die on and off the battlefield. The word from those on the ground is that there is already another leader filling Tamilselvan's shoes.
For Pirapaharan the short-term loss of friends and comrades pales next to prize of a homeland for the Tamil people. More than 70,000 have lost their lives in the conflict on the Indian Ocean island.
In many ways both sides are committed to a military strategy. The president has made it clear that a political solution would be impossible without first crushing the LTTE, something the Sri Lankan defence ministry has said can be achieved in just two years.
The Tigers too appear to want war. By most analysts' reckoning, they used the four years since a 2002 ceasefire to rearm and rebuild their military base.
The last peace talks in October 2006 were overshadowed by fierce fighting that displaced 200,000 people. That was followed by a government push into the east, rolling back the Tigers into the forests of central Sri Lanka. However the military have been unable to penetrate the Tiger's key bases, which have been heavily mined. The result has been a reliance on airstrikes.
In many ways the death of Tamilselvan was the government's attempt to even the score with the LTTE who scored a propaganda coup with a devastating attack on an airbase two weeks ago.
The ball is now again in the Tiger's jungle court. Later this month Pirapaharan will take to the airwaves for the Tigers' annual "heroes day" speech. For the next few weeks, Sri Lanka will be braced for the LTTE’s deadly reply.