COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Army commandos Monday shot and killed the founder and leader of a bloody insurrection by leftist Sinhalese rebels after he and an unknown number of comrades were captured, government officials said.
The death of Rohanna Wijeweera, 46, the founder of the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna, known as the JVP or People's Liberation Front, is almost certain to provoke an escalation in the blood-letting that has already claimed more than 10,000 lives since 1987, undermined the economy and torn Sri Lankan society.
High-ranking government sources said Wijeweera, a fugitive since 1983, and an unknown number of followers were killed in a pre-dawn raid by elite army troops on a tea estate near the central town of Gampola, 80 miles northeast of Colombo.
But an army commander said the rebel leader was killed by troops in a Colombo hideout after one of his colleagues opened fire.
President Ranasinghe Premadasa ordered increased security Monday in anticipation of a violent backlash by Wijeweera's followers, mostly disaffected students and unemployed youths of the island's 13 million-strong Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
Foreign Minister Ranjan Wijeratne announced at a news conference Monday that Premadasa also had ordered 'a full inquiry by an independent unit' into Wijeweera's death because of the conflicting reports over how he was killed.
In a letter to the government released by Wijeratne, army commander Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe said troops operating near Gampola 'came across a person who they suspected to be Rohanna Wijeweera.'
After confirming his identity, the officers interrogated Wijeweera and he 'volunteered' to make a videotape appeal to the JVP to surrender its arms and then agreed to take security forces to a hideout in the city where JVP Politburo member H.B. Herath was discovered, the letter said.
'Mr. H.B. Herath handed over certain articles and pretending to search for more articles, suddenly pulled out a weapon and fired in the direction of Mr. Rohanna Wijeweera,' the letter said.
Security force personnel began shooting and both radicals died of bullet wounds, the letter said. It said the bodies were immediately cremated.
But the government sources, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said Wijeweera and an unknown number of followers were captured in a pre-dawn raid Monday by commandos of the army's elite Rapid Deployment Force on the Gampola tea estate.
'In a confrontation, he was shot dead,' said one source, declining to elaborate.
There was no word on the status of the other prisoners, who included two members of the JVP politburo, the group's military coordinator for Colombo and its leader in Kandy, the capital of Central Province and currently the center of the worst of the bloody turmoil gripping the island.
The sources said the prisoners did not include Upatissa Gamanayake, the chief of the military wing of the JVP, which adheres to an ideology that fuses Marxism with fierce Sinhalese nationalism.
The group, according to Western diplomats, is estimated to have a core of about 500 key members and thousands of activists and sympathizers.
Sources said the raid was staged on information from Deeman Ananda, a member of the JVP politburo who was captured 10 days ago by security forces during a roundup of suspects in a Colombo suburb.
Ananda told authorities that Wijeweera had changed his appearance and was living under an alias near Gampola with his wife and five children.
The JVP has been waging a campaign of murder, sabotage, intimidation and crippling strikes aimed at creating conditions that would allow it to seize power.
The revolt has claimed more than 10,000 lives -- half of them this year -- and traumatized Sinhalese areas of the verdant tropical island. More than 20 people are reported killed daily in JVP assassinations, death squad massacres or clashes between security forces and the radicals.
The JVP has repeatedly spurned Premadasa's peace overtures.
Wijeweera molded the JVP from a Maoist student group in 1966 when he returned to Sri Lanka after being expelled from a university in Moscow for expressing pro-Chinese sentiments.
After a failed revolt in 1971, Wijeweera and his top deputies were sentenced to life terms. But in a gesture of reconciliation, former president Junius Jayewardene released them after winning power in 1977 and allowed the JVP to operate as a legal political party.
The JVP began laying the groundwork for the current insurrection when Wijeweera went underground in 1983 after Jayewardene outlawed the group, accusing it of instigating widespread riots in which hundreds of minority Tamils were massacred by Sinhalese. The unrest sparked a civil war by separatists in Tamil-dominated North-Eastern Province.
JVP operatives quietly infiltrated the military, the police and the bureaucracy and built strong ties with the powerful Buddhist clergy.
The JVP launched the insurrection in earnest in 1987, exploiting as a means of gaining support widespread anti-government sentiment among Sinhalese ignited by Indian intervention in the Tamil civil war.
India deployed tens of thousands of troops in North-Eastern Province, home to most of the island's 3 million predominantly Hindu Tamils, under a July 1987 accord signed with Colombo that was designed to end the Tamil revolt by granting the minority greater self-rule.