Tamil Rebels Say New Leader Arrested

COLOMBO — Sri Lankan authorities questioned the new leader of the Tamil Tiger rebels Friday after he was arrested in Southeast Asia and flown to this island nation.

Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the insurgent group's former chief arms smuggler, assumed the leadership of the Tamil Tigers after government forces routed the rebels in May in northern Sri Lanka and killed their revered leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
A Tamil civilian at the Manik Farm refugee camp on the outskirts of the northern Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya in May. Sri Lanka has directed all international relief agencies, including the Red Cross, to scale down operations following the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels. (Photo: AFP)

Pathmanathan was believed to be based in Southeast Asia in recent years and was one of the few rebel leaders to survive the government offensive that demolished the separatists' shadow state in northern Sri Lanka and ended the quarter century civil war.

But as Pathmanathan, known by his nom de guerre KP, worked to revive the Tamil Tigers, the government pushed for his arrest.

The rebels said in a statement that Pathmanathan was arrested Wednesday near a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A pro-rebel Web site said Pathmanathan had gone to the hotel to meet relatives of the group's slain political leader, Balasingham Nadesan. He left the room to answer a phone call, but did not return, it said.

A Malaysian Defense Ministry spokeswoman said the ministry has no information about the reported arrest, and that it would have been handled by the police. She cannot be identified under the ministry's briefing rules.

Malaysian national police chief Musa Hassan said he knew nothing about an arrest and declined to comment further.

Sri Lanka's Island newspaper, quoting anonymous sources, said Pathmanathan had been captured in Thailand.

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn denied he was arrested there but said there were "reports that he has been traveling in and out of Thailand."

A Thai military intelligence official said Pathamanathan had been hiding in northern Thailand under a false identity in recent months. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the government did not want to acknowledge his presence in the country.

Sri Lanka's military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said Pathmanathan—who was wanted by Interpol—had been brought to Sri Lanka and was being interrogated. He refused to say where Pathmanathan had been arrested or whether the military or police had custody of him.

The arrest was expected to give President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his allies a boost ahead of local government elections Saturday in the northern towns of Jaffna and Vavuniya, just outside the rebels' former heartland.http://www.irrawaddy.org/articlefiles/17411-capt.photo_1247126687953-4-0.jpg

The government said the polls proved it was returning democracy to the region, but it has been criticized for banning foreign media from traveling to the towns to cover the elections.

The Sri Lankan authorities planned to hold a news conference Friday to discuss the arrest, a major blow to the rebel group's efforts to regroup after its devastating battlefield defeat.

Soon after the defeat, Pathmanathan declared himself the new leader of the Tamil Tigers, swore off violence and worked to transform a group shunned internationally as a terror organization into a democratic movement for Tamil statehood.