The leader of the Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka has been killed, officials said Monday, ending a 25-year quest for an independent homeland for the country's Tamil minority.
State television broke into programming Monday to announce the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Sri Lanka's government information department also sent a text message to cellphones across the country, saying the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader and two of his deputies had been killed.
But a pro-Tamil Tiger website later said Prabhakaran was still alive, the Reuters news agency reported.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa delivered a victory address to Parliament on Tuesday, declaring that his country had been "liberated" from terrorism after defeating the Tamil Tiger insurgents on the battlefield.
Recounting how the insurgents, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, once controlled a wide swath of the north and much of the east, Rajapaksa said that for the first time in 30 years, the country was unified under its elected government.
"We have liberated the whole country from LTTE terrorism," he said, declaring Wednesday a national holiday to celebrate the armed forces.
Sri Lanka's army chief, Lt.-Gen. Sareth Fonseka, said troops routed the last of the rebels from the northern war zone of the Indian Ocean country Monday morning.
Prabhakaran was killed during a two-hour gunfight as he attempted to flee the area in a van with other rebels and his deputies, officials said.
But efforts are still being made to identify Prabhakaran's body, said Fonseka.
"We can announce very responsibly that we have liberated the whole country from terrorism," he said.
Reports cannot be independently verified because journalists and aid workers are still barred from the area.
Celebration in Colombo
Monday's announcements sparked celebrations across the country and sent people pouring into the streets in the capital of Colombo to dance, sing and wave flags.
"Myself and most of my friends gathered here have narrowly escaped bombs set off by the Tigers. Some of our friends were not lucky," Lal Hettige told The Associated Press. "We are happy today to see the end of that ruthless terrorist organization and its heartless leader. We can live in peace after this."
The insurgents have been fighting for more than 25 years to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who say they have faced decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the ethnic Sinhalese majority.
Senior diplomats had appealed for a humanitarian ceasefire in recent weeks to safeguard the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone, but the government refused, and denied persistent reports it was shelling the densely populated war zone.
The United Nations has said at least 7,000 civilians were killed in the fighting between Jan. 20 and May 7. Health officials in the area said more than 1,000 others have been killed since then.
Estimates suggest that more than 70,000 people died in the civil war and at least 200,000 have been displaced by the recent clashes.
"The conventional war may be over but the real challenge now is to foster an environment where fractured and displaced Tamil communities can heal and have a real chance at creating a future for themselves and their children," said Suresh Bartlett, national director of World Vision in Sri Lanka.
Diplomats in Brussels said Monday the European Union will endorse a call for an independent war crimes investigation into the killing of civilians in Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government detained three doctors Monday, alleging they gave false information about the casualties to the media.
With journalists and nearly all aid workers barred from the zone, the doctors became some of the few sources of information on the toll the war took on the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the area.
Prabhakaran's death has been seen as crucial to bringing closure to the civil war.
Officials believed that if Prabhakaran had escaped he would have been able to use his large international smuggling network and the support of Tamil expatriates to spark a new round of guerrilla warfare.
Tamils 'saddened' by death
But analysts cautioned that his death could also turn him into a martyr for Tamil separatists.
Suren Surendiran, a spokesman for the British Tamils' Forum, said the Tamil community was in despair.
"The people are very sombre and very saddened. But we are ever determined and resilient to continue our struggle for Eelam," he said.
Meanwhile in Toronto, some Tamil activists vowed to continue their protests because the community's grievances have not yet been addressed.
Thousands of Tamil demonstrators have staged sit-ins in parts of downtown Toronto, held candlelight vigils and blocked off major expressways.
The Tamil Tigers are a labelled as a terrorist organization by several countries, including Canada and India.