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A life of war: Prabhakaran, Sri Lanka's rebel chief

Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who has been reported killed, was feted as a 'Sun God' by his supporters and branded as a ruthless megalomaniac by his opponents.

world Updated: May 18, 2009 13:59 IST

Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who has been reported killed, was feted as a 'Sun God' by his supporters and branded as a ruthless megalomaniac by his opponents.

Few dispute he was one of the most effective guerrilla leaders in modern warfare -- displaying the tactical prowess of Afghanistan's Ahmad Shah Masoud, the ruthlessness of Osama bin Laden and the conviction of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara.

In three decades of savage ethnic conflict aimed at carving out a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east, Prabhakaran managed to consolidate a de facto state and -- until now -- outsmart successive government offensives.

He terrorised the island and even neighbouring powerhouse India, perfecting the recruitment and use of suicide bomber units before Al-Qaeda existed.

His fighters usually took no prisoners, and were notorious for assaults that often left every single enemy soldier dead.

He was held responsible for ordering the 1991 assassination of former Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi, who in 1987 sent Indian troops to disarm the Tamil Tigers but ended up withdrawing his troops after years of jungle combat.

Prabhakaran's killing apparatus also claimed the lives of Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2005 and countless mayors, police officials and army officers.

Interpol described him as a wanted terrorist with a "stout build" who was "very alert, known to use disguise and capable of handling sophisticated weaponry and explosives."

Prabhakaran's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had their own army, navy and air force, built up by an illicit international fundraising network and the use of sanctions-busting smugglers on ships and speedboats.

"His dedication to the cause of the Tamil Eelam (state) was unquestionable," recalled former Tamil guerrilla Dharmalingam Sithadthan, now a politician.

"He was the only man in Sri Lanka who could decide if there should be war or peace."

Sithadthan said Prabhakaran, 54, was neither mellowed by age nor by his family of three children.

Born on November 26, 1954 in the Tamil heartland of Jaffna, Prabhakaran was a guerrilla fighter for most of his life and presided over a war that has left at least 70,000 dead -- roughly a third of whom were his own fighters.

The youngest of four children from a middle-class family, he went underground in 1972 as the head of a rag-tag band of brigands.
He claimed that he decided to take up arms after seeing Sri Lankan security forces harass Tamil civilians in the Jaffna peninsula.

He went on to attract thousands of young men and women to his army. Like the master himself, all LTTE cadres carried a cyanide capsule to commit suicide rather than be captured alive.

He banned smoking and drinking within the ranks and enforced a strict code of discipline.

Prabhakaran conferred military ranks on his cadres only after their deaths and built a cult of venerating the dead. Every street corner in rebel-held territory became a monument to a fallen Tiger "martyr."
Despite earning international terrorist status in the corridors of Washington and Europe and being wanted in India, he was sought out by diplomats wanting to bring an end to Asia's longest running civil war.
But since the island's government lost patience with a Norwegian-brokered peace plan and decided to defeat the rebels once and for all, Prabhakaran's empire has crumbled.

Weakened by defections, the rebels lost control over the east and then the north.

In February, 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.