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Sri Lanka’s most wanted Tiger running out of options

[AFP, Monday, 19 January 2009 08:16 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s top Tamil Tiger, who inspired hundreds of followers to stage suicide bombings in the fight for a separate state, is facing his biggest challenge yet and is fast running out of options.


To his followers, Velupillai Prabhakaran is seen as a "Sun God" who formed a formidable and feared guerrilla organisation out of a ragtag group of separatist rebels in the 1970s.


But to his enemies, he is considered a ruthless killer, outlawed around the world as a terrorist kingpin and wanted on charges of mass murder.


At the height of his military success, Prabhakaran’s Tigers inflicted heavy losses on the government forces of Sri Lanka and neighbouring India.


But since Sri Lankan forces mounted their biggest ground, sea and air campaign so far to dismantle the de facto Tiger state in the north of the island, Prabhakaran has seen his territory crumble rapidly.


"Prabhakaran is facing the biggest military setback in his career and it is unlikely he can recover," said former rebel-turned-politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan.


The chubby Prabhakaran, usually pictured wearing combat fatigues and sporting a bushy moustache, inspired hundreds of young men, women and even children to stage suicide bombings in the battle for a separate state called Eelam for the island’s minority Tamils.


Sri Lanka’s army chief, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, who survived a Tiger suicide assassination attempt in April 2006, has said Prabhakaran is running out of hiding places amid the ongoing military operation.


Fonseka has said he wants to crush the Tigers by April, when the country marks the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Despite promises in November to strike back, Prabhakaran’s Tamil Tigers have failed to impress.


The Tigers are now surrounded and restricted to their jungle hideouts in the northeastern corner of Sri Lanka, from where Fonseka has threatened to drive the rebels into the sea.

Born on November 26, 1954 in the Tamil heartland of Jaffna, Prabhakaran has been a guerrilla fighter for most of his life, building up the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from a motley band of rebels.


Prabhakaran went on to shape one of the world’s deadliest killing machines, building an organisation with its own army, navy and air force.


He inspired his cadres to wear a cyanide capsule around their necks to commit suicide in case they were cornered by security forces.


Neighbouring India, which once nurtured and provided a safe haven to Prabhakaran, treating him as a freedom fighter battling oppression of minority Tamils by a majority Sinhalese government, now treats him as a wanted man.


Prabhakaran is suspected in the 1991 assassination of former Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi, who in 1987 ordered Indian troops to disarm the Tigers and ended up fighting them for 32 months.


India withdrew its troops in May 1990 after 1,200 soldiers were killed fighting the Tigers.


Since visiting New Delhi in 1987, Prabhakaran is not known to have left Sri Lanka, although his outfit took part in Norwegian-brokered peace talks between 2002 and 2006.


Former rebel Sithadthan said he did not believe Prabhakaran had mellowed with age and said the guerrilla leader was unlikely to allow himself to be captured alive.


"He may have already left the island by boat," Sithadthan said, echoing a belief held by Sri Lankan security forces.


However, Prabhakaran is unlikely to have many friends overseas. The Tigers are banned across Europe, Australia and the United States.


There is an international arrest warrant against him for, among other incidents, the 1996 bombing of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka building, which killed 91 people.


Prabhakaran, the youngest of four children from a middle-class family and nicknamed "Thamby," or younger brother, went underground in 1972 after dropping out of school and forming the Tiger outfit.


At the time he longed to own a revolver, even a rusty one, according to an official biography.

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