NEW DELHI — The Tamil Tigers admitted defeat Sunday in their quarter-century struggle against Sri Lanka's government and offered to lay down their weapons to protect the fighters and civilians who remain trapped in a sliver of land along the island's north coast.
Military officials rejected the offer as a last-minute act of desperation. They said that fighting continued, and that the army was bracing for suicide bombings. They also claimed that all civilians were out of the combat zone.
The battered remnants of the rebel force, which has been fighting for a homeland for Sri Lanka's marginalized ethnic Tamil minority, are reportedly trapped in about half a square mile of land.
Early today the army announced that it had found the bodies of four top Tiger leaders, including the eldest son of reclusive leader Velupillai Prabhakaran -- but not of Prabhakaran himself. Those reports could not be confirmed, and Prabhakaran's whereabouts remained a mystery.
The conflict has claimed 70,000 lives, destroyed communities and turned many parts of the idyllic tropical island into a fortress.
On TamilNet, a pro-Tiger website, the decimated rebel group -- known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -- said it was putting down its weapons.
"This battle has reached its bitter end," rebel official Selvarasa Pathmanathan was quoted as saying in the online statement. "It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. . . . We have decided to silence our guns."
But military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said in a telephone interview that TamilNet had a history of lying and that Sunday was no different. On the ground, Tiger rebels continue to attack soldiers in the conflict zone, he said.
"We have to protect ourselves until the rest of the area is liberated," he said. "If they fire, we will fire back."
The four leaders reportedly found dead today were political leader Balasingham Nadesan; the head of the rebels' peace secretariat, Seevaratnam Puleedevan; a top military leader known as Ramesh; and Prabhakaran's son, Charles Anthony.
Nanayakkara said that with little territory left to capture, the army was confident it would be able to seize the remaining fighters shortly. Whether they surrender, commit suicide or die fighting is their choice, he said.
The military said Sunday that it had killed at least 70 militants trying to escape by boat while suicide bombers sought to attack army positions.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa was expected to tell the country during a nationally televised news conference Tuesday morning at parliament that the protracted war was over.
The conflict has taken an enormous toll on families, communities, Sri Lanka's humanitarian and human rights reputation, and the economy. With the end of the struggle in sight Sunday, thousands of Sri Lankans danced, lighted fireworks and beat celebratory drums.
Analysts say the Sinhalese majority government is at an important crossroads. If it discriminates against the Tamil population and fails to show magnanimity in victory, it risks winning the war but losing the peace.
"At the end of the day, it's a political contest that requires a political settlement," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, the capital. "If there's no political settlement, there's a good chance we will see the rise of another LTTE-like group again."
The United Nations and international humanitarian groups have long criticized the apparent lack of concern for civilians by both sides as tens of thousands of people found themselves trapped in the shrinking conflict zone.
The Tamil Tigers, labeled a terrorist group by the U.S., the European Union and India, have been accused of using civilians as human shields. The army in turn has been accused of firing indiscriminately. Both sides have denied the charges.
In recent days, concerns mounted for the fate of any civilians trapped in the war zone amid heavy shelling and intense fighting. But Nanayakkara said Sunday that 63,000 civilians had left the area over the preceding 96 hours, many brought out in government vehicles, clearing the way for the final showdown.
The Tamil Tigers, which at one point had a small navy and air force, were among the most innovative rebel groups in the world. They pioneered the use of suicide vests and refined them so that if the wearer lifted his arms in surrender, the device would detonate. They aggressively recruited female fighters and suicide bombers, and developed innovative financing methods.
At their peak, the Tigers controlled a de facto state in nearly a third of the island's territory, complete with courts, police and a tax system.
But the Tigers' tactical strength belied a weakness in political strategy under Prabhakaran's leadership, contributing to their downfall.