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Page last updated at 21:21 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 22:21 UK

Peace hopes grip Sri Lankans

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo

Sri Lankans hold celebrate the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, in Colombo, 18 May 2009.
Many jubilant Sri Lankans believe the conflict is all over

The national flags are out. They are decking the streets, sold in clusters on street corners, fluttering from the auto rickshaws, waved by men in a pick-up truck.

On the streets of Colombo there is jubilation and smiling faces as the firecrackers are lit.

"I'm very very happy. After 30 years we've won… victory, I suppose!" says a young woman in Pettah, an old market area near the city centre, almost in surprise.

She says she is proud of the president and intends to go home and put out flags.

Not only Sinhalese but also Tamil, Muslim and other people tell the BBC they are relieved.

For decades they had feared boarding buses or visiting temples, some said, for fear of bombs. Now they hope there will be peace.

'Pride'

There is patriotic satisfaction, too, in website postings by Sri Lankans.

Today is the first day of my life I'm living in a Sri Lanka where there is no war
Internet posting

"Sri Lanka Rockz," says one.

Some take pride in the military. "Every time we all are with you, our great warriors... One nation - One flag - Sri Lanka."

The army says its operations are ended, that rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is dead and troops now hold all of the island's territory for the first time since 1983.

Such news will have been greeted almost with disbelief by Sri Lankans, many of whom were born into war or barely remember the time before it.

"We're part of history!" says another posting. "Today is the first day of my life I'm living in a Sri Lanka where there is no war."

A taxi driver expresses the view that, with the top Tamil Tiger leaders out of the picture, bomb blasts really will become a thing of the past.

But will they?

End of the road

Some commentators have predicted that, after their military defeat, the Tigers will concentrate more on their hallmark bombing tactics - saying this will be made possible by the cells they maintain.

Velupillai Prabhakaran
The elusive and feared Prabhakaran was the heart and soul of the Tigers'

But one expert tells the BBC he does not accept that argument.

Maybe there will be stray cases, he says, but with so many of the top LTTE [Tamil Tigers] leaders reportedly killed by the army, he does not see what Tamils would want to kill themselves for.

After all, according to Prabhakaran's biographer MR Narayan Swamy, for the Tigers he was "their brain… their heart… their god… their soul".

Indeed, asked whether they would continue the guerrilla war, the LTTE's foreign-based international relations head, S Padmanathan, told Britain's Channel 4 television on Sunday he believed in a peaceful solution for the Tamil people.

The war started by the LTTE has left humanitarian suffering on a huge scale - including in its final stages.

Dealing with the suffering of the refugees, the wounded and the bereaved will loom high on Sri Lanka's agenda in the immediate future.

We shouldn't be triumphalist
Sinhala woman

Almost a month ago, the United Nations said it feared 6,500 civilians had been killed and twice the number wounded in the war zone since January - civilians who, it alleged, were forcibly held there by the LTTE (although the rebels always denied that) and were caught in heavy crossfire.

It described more recent violence in the small rebel-controlled zone in the north-east of the country as a "bloodbath".

Doctors working in the area described hundreds of deaths and injuries at their makeshift clinics, having to abandon the facilities in the last days.

The government said it doubted their information, as they might have been speaking under LTTE pressure - but the UN trusted them as an impartial source.

Even on Monday the UN refugee agency's head in Sri Lanka, Amin Awad, said he was worried civilians might have been killed within the past 48 hours.

Ongoing grievances

Hundreds of thousands of traumatised, emaciated people have poured out of the combat zone in the past few weeks and now stay in difficult conditions in government-run camps.

The UN and humanitarian agencies will be hoping for better access to them now that the war is over.

The UN has also said it is concerned about the welfare of the doctors who are believed to have escaped the fighting but have not been heard from since.

The government says political reforms will also be on its agenda, reforms that will perhaps aim to tackle some of the grievances of Tamil citizens who, as an ethnic minority, feel discriminated against or marginalised by the state.

There have also been calls, both from within and outside the country, for a process of reconciliation and healing, and for the government to be magnanimous in victory.

One Sri Lankan exile, also posting on the web, says he is concerned that a "hunt for Tigers and traitors will continue" - reflecting on the hard line the government has often taken towards dissenting voices and those it accuses of giving comfort to the rebels.

"We shouldn't be triumphalist," a Sinhala woman, who largely supported the government's campaign against the LTTE, told the BBC.



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