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Fate of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran remains a mystery

[Times Online UK, Sunday, 17 May 2009 20:27 No Comment]

The Government calls him a psychopath responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people. To his followers he is a freedom fighter who struggled to protect Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority from discrimination at the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority.

But almost everyone agrees that he was, until recently, one of the world’s most successful guerrilla leaders, having built the Tamil Tigers a navy and air force and established a mini-state that at one point covered one third of Sri Lanka.

Mystery surrounded the fate of Velupillai Prabhakaran, 54, the Tigers’ elusive leader, after government forces battling the last of the rebels said that they had found no sign of either him or his eldest son, Charles Anthony. The army said that the guerrilla leader, who pioneered the use of suicide bombs and, like all his fighters, wore a cyanide capsule around his neck, might have blown himself up on Friday night in a bunker inside the conflict zone.

In the past Prabhakaran has told his bodyguards to douse him in petrol and burn him alive if he was about to be captured, according to M.S. Narayan Swamy, an Indian journalist who has met the rebel leader and written a biography of him.

Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the Tigers’ head of international relations, who is in hiding in South-East Asia, insisted last night that Prabhakaran was still on the front line and wanted to negotiate a ceasefire. But the absence of proof fuelled rumours that Prabhakaran was in hiding overseas after escaping, probably in a small aircraft, a boat or even a submarine, possibly weeks or even months ago.

Prabhakaran is believed to have had at least two body doubles, and it is thought that he could easily find shelter among India’s large ethnic Tamil population, or in small fishing communities in Thailand or Malaysia.

That prospect is deeply troubling for the Government, even as it celebrates its defeat of the Tigers as a conventional military force, because Prabhakaran could continue his guerrilla campaign underground for many years yet.

“If Prabhakaran is not found, then it is not a complete victory,” said Dharmalingam Sitharthan, a co-founder of the Tigers who is now a mainstream politician living in Colombo, the capital. “If Prabhakaran is killed, then we have a real chance for peace because he was the main obstacle to any political settlement.”

Prabhakaran, the son of a government clerk, was born in 1954 in a coastal town on the northern Jaffna peninsula. He is remembered by contemporaries as a shy and restless student who enjoyed reading.

He began attending political meetings and learning martial arts in the early 1970s, angered by the mistreatment of Tamils by the Sinhalese-dominated Government.

He founded the Tamil New Tigers in 1972, and rose to prominence three years later when he shot dead the pro-government mayor of Jaffna city. A year after that he changed his group’s name to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), still its official name, and in 1983 he launched a guerrilla war with an attack that killed 13 soldiers.

Over the next two decades he eliminated all potential rivals, built up a personality cult based on his own dedication to the cause and turned the Tigers into one of the world’s most disciplined and effective rebel armies.

The Tigers have pledged to continue fighting underground, and if Prabhakaran has somehow escaped it is possible that he will be able to regroup, re-arm and launch further suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks on Sri Lanka.

[Full Coverage]

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