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On to Eelam: from bicycle to aircraft

Way back in 1983, LTTE supremo Prabhakaran rode a bicycle through Jaffna to oversee a spot his colleagues had picked to ambush Lankan troops.

world Updated: Mar 27, 2007 17:42 IST

Way back in 1983, Velupillai Prabhakaran, on the alert, rode a bicycle through Jaffna to oversee a spot near the university his colleagues had picked to ambush Sri Lankan troops.

Few people knew him then, and fewer had heard of the Tamil Tigers.

A quarter century later, the same man, now a legend, has made history by using Tamil ingenuity to transform two light aircraft into stealthy bombers to target the air base of his enemy right in the heart of Sri Lanka.

From the humble bicycle then to the breathless display of air power in 2007 - this is the extraordinary achievement of a man who has presided over a sharp and intelligent growth of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), taking it from a band of barely 40 men in 1983 to become the world's first insurgent group to carry out an aerial attack without any external state support.

A simple device, the cycle proved an ideal transport for Tamil militants in the 1970s and 80s.

Young men would come riding, looking like any other cyclist, fire at their targets and coolly pedal away!

A frustrated administration decided to ban the use of cycles in Jaffna, forcing a local magazine to ask: "What will the terrorists do next? Take to tricycles? Will tricycles be banned too eventually?"

Using anything and everything that could advance the cause of Tamil Eelam was something Prabhakaran learnt and began implementing a long time ago.

During the years he was underground but largely unknown, he opted to use chilli powder to keep policemen at bay if nothing else was available. Weapons bought second hand and stolen or snatched from security forces followed.

There was of course no stopping his dreams.

In 1982, while residing in Madurai town, Prabhakaran confided to Tamil Nadu politician P Nedumaran: "How I wish I would be able to see at least 100 LTTE armed members walk in a marching column one day!"

Just a decade later, he was presiding over Jaffna peninsula at the head of a huge LTTE army, having ousted Indian troops from Sri Lanka's northeast with a blend of guerrilla tactics and cunning diplomacy.

In that tumultuous decade, Prabhakaran provided the Tigers an identity as a fighting force and presided over the slow, steady and secret build up of a group that grew and grew, whatever the consequences, whatever the price.

He was not worried about the methods, and he certainly did not mind doing away with real or perceived foes.

What came in the beginning were a secret code, a constitution, and simple rules of discipline (not always adhered to).

Then came the bigger dreams - uniforms for his men, more weapons, more modern weapons, deadlier weapons, sanctuaries, training manuals, training grounds. These too turned into reality over time.

By then, cycles were no more the mainstay of the guerrillas, whose leaders, Prabhakaran included, had long grown out of their teens.

They were no more just another militant group. They were the first among equals, and path breakers in technology that could kill.

Motorcycles, tractors and jeeps were added to the LTTE arsenal. Deep underground bunkers were dug.

Boats, speedboats, larger vessels and even bigger ships joined the Tamil Tiger assets, making it the first insurgent group in this part of the world to have a naval wing. The Tigers also brought down fighter jets.

And Prabhakaran had a huge crop of suicide bombers - which were the most dangerous of weapons of all in his inventory.

The LTTE, however, lacked one thing: planes. But it did not lack innovative capacity. If the Tigers used huge, improvised catapults to overwhelm the Jaffna Fort, they never stopped trying to build something that could fly.

Anyone who knew the Tiger mindset was sure the planes would make their appearance one day.

That they did, initially to sprinkle flowers on cemeteries of LTTE fighters in 1998. Nine years later, as the country slept, they flew to Colombo to bomb Sri Lankan air force jets.

March 26 may just be the beginning of a new war front in a country that battles men and women who adamantly refuse to give up.