Sri Lanka fears retaliation as Tigers honour slain chief

( AFP ) - The elusive leader of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels on Saturday paid his respects to his slain deputy and five others who died in a government air raid, as security was stepped up across the island.

Velupillai Prabhakaran honoured S.P. Thamilselvan, head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE's) political wing, inside rebel-held territory, a rebel spokesman said.

"Our national leader paid his respects to Mr. Thamilselvan, and he will be making a statement very soon on this incident," Rasiah Ilanthiriyan told AFP by satellite telephone from the north.

In the north-east of the island, the military carried out more air raids Saturday, the defence ministry said adding that a rebel warehouse had been hit. There were no reports of casualties in that attack.

The Tigers held funerals on Saturday for the five other senior members killed in Friday's air strike near the rebel capital Kilinochchi, the rebels said.

Thamilselvan's funeral is scheduled for Monday, Ilanthiriyan said.

The rest of the island was on a heightened state of alert over fears of revenge attacks against military or civilian targets in government-held areas.

Traffic along the main highway linking the capital and the international airport was held up as police and heavily armed troops carried out search operations.

Motorists said they were held up for three hours trying to enter Colombo.

Police said search operations were conducted to look for any guerrillas who may try to infiltrate the city of 650,000 people.

The defence ministry also reported ongoing fighting along the de facto border with the mini-state run by the guerrillas in the north of the island.

It said two more LTTE fighters were killed Saturday while two were killed Friday, and that it had captured a line of bunkers from the rebels near an irrigation reservoir.

The guerrillas denied losing territory to government forces.

No independent verification of the claims was available.

Thamilselvan was the highest-ranking member of the LTTE to be killed by government forces in the 35-year separatist campaign and his death has been seen as a major setback to the Tamil separatists.

"Facing international and local media as well as all foreign delegates, he meticulously tried hard to win sympathy for their terrorist cause posing before the cameras with a serene smile which did not portray his actual soul," the defence ministry said.

It said the military had targeted a venue where rebel leaders were meeting and scored a direct hit.

The LTTE immediately declared three days of mourning and named Thamilselvan a brigadier, the highest rank conferred posthumously to any guerrilla by Prabhakaran since the group's formation in 1972.

Prabhakaran, who turns 53 on November 26, named his police chief, P. Nadesan, as new leader of the LTTE's political wing, Ilanthiriyan said.

Nadesan, a police defector who joined the Tigers and later became a member of the Tiger peace negotiating team, will continue his work with the Tiger police unit, Ilanthiriyan said.

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