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No sign of Sri Lanka rebel chief as trap closes

[AFP, Sunday, 19 April 2009 09:24 No Comment]

As Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war moves into what appears to be a bloody end game, all eyes are on a small strip of coastal jungle, looking for signs of the elusive leader of the Tamil Tigers.

 

The rotund rebel chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, a 54-year-old with decades of experience surviving military onslaughts and political intrigue, has not been seen at the guerrillas’ public functions for nearly 18 months.

In that time he is thought to have commanded his forces from the safety of underground jungle bunkers, and his mystique is likely to continue to hold sway until he is found — dead or alive.

 

"We can’t find anyone who has seen Prabhakaran recently," said Dharmalingam Sithadthan, a former associate of the rebel leader who is now the head of a Tamil group allied to the island’s government.

"The army can truly claim victory only after they can show what happened to Prabhakaran. They must either show his body or capture him alive."

 

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were once seen as one of the world’s most efficient guerrilla outfits, lording over a third of Sri Lanka’s territory and controlling an overseas fund-raising network as well as a lucrative shipping business.

 

But now the rebels are outnumbered and surrounded in the jungles outside Mullaittivu, their former military headquarters. Defeat would end a more than 30-year campaign for a Tamil homeland within the Sinhalese-majority island.

 

In February, government troops captured a two-storey air conditioned bunker hidden in a coconut grove in Mullaittivu district — thought to be one of Prabhakaran’s main bases.

 

Pictures released by the defence ministry purported to show that Prabhakaran had left behind a stuffed tiger, a paintball gun and a bottle of cognac.

 

Sri Lankan media then speculated that he may have already slipped off the island by boat.

 

That sparked alerts in nearby India — where he is wanted in connection with the 1991 assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi — as well as in Malaysia.

 

Residents who managed to flee the conflict zone told reporters in the northern town of Vavuniya that they believed he had fled and was coordinating the last-ditch fight from a ship operating in international waters.

With his hideouts captured, observers believe, Prabhakaran may not be able to mingle freely with civilians because he has so many enemies — either for sending Tamil children onto the battlefield or for crushing any challenge to his leadership.

 

The defence ministry, however, has said the level of resistance the military continues to encounter indicates he may still be on the ground.

 

Indian writer M.R. Narayan Swamy, a biographer of Prabhakaran, said he believes the rebel leader has little choice but to fight on until the end.

 

"He cannot give up — or cannot be even seen to be giving up," he said.

[Full Coverage]

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