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The 'General' who ran out of moves

world Updated: May 18, 2009 14:17 IST

Velupillai Prabhakaran, master military strategist, who held the Tamil community and Sri Lanka hostage for close to a quarter of a century, has met his nemesis.

A man who took on the might of the Sri Lankan army and was responsible for the deaths of 1,200 Indian soldiers between 1987-1990 in his northern lair of Jaffna, spawned the dream of carving out a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

The Tamils, subjected to all kinds of discrimination by the Sinhala state, were 'taken over' by Prabhakaran, who systematically assassinated almost the entire non-LTTE Tamil leadership in the country. He always wanted to be the sole spokesman of the Tamil community.

The human suicide bomber was Prabhakaran's unique contribution to the annals of terror. The only terrorist group in the world that boasted of an "air force", Prabhakaran was feared not just in Sri Lanka but in India too.

Born to middle class parents in 1954 in a coastal town of Jaffna, he was the youngest of four children. He was shy, and in his childhood devoured books on Alexander the Great, Subhash Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh. His admiration for Bose was believed to have been enduring; it fitted in neatly with the vision of his "struggle".

In the early seventies, he began to attend political meetings and was convinced that an armed rebellion was the only way to assert the rights of the Lankan Tamils. In 1975, he assassinated the Tamil mayor of Jaffna, who he accused of being against the community. It was the beginning of a career in war, guerrilla-style at the outset, but fully conventional by the middle of the '90s.

The man himself remained elusive -- in the classical mould of secretive leaders - operating out of jungles and large swathes of land in remote areas. His last press conference was in 2002 in the LTTE's political capital, Kilinochchi. His "death" has been reported more than a dozen times over the years.

A ruthless leader, Prabhakaran ordered the execution of his deputy, Mahattaya in the mid-1990s, accusing him of collaborating with Indian intelligence.

The few former colleagues who have survived remembered him as dictatorial, wary of dissent; someone who would nurse a grudge for a long time: one Tamil politician, now a minister, was attacked 10 times.

"Prabhakaran is a very dangerous man,'' Karuna Amman, former LTTE leader and once Prabhakaran's strongman in eastern Sri Lanka, told HT recently. He smiled nervously recollecting the LTTE chief's last words to him; "you are a traitor. You have sold the freedom struggle."

Journalist Anita Pratap, who interviewed him more than once, wrote in Sunday, the now-defunct weekly magazine, that the man was "… ruthless, cunning and brutal, but he was also clearly a master tactician and a brilliant strategist…no doubts, no fears, no worries clouded his vision…he could see today what his opponents would do years later. He would have made a brilliant chess player.''

In the end, Prabhakaran ran out of moves. When a determined Lankan army pushed on, the international community largely looked the other way. New Delhi, once his mentor, spoke up for civilian Tamils, but did nothing to hinder Colombo's military offensive.

The dream of a separate Tamil Eelam has died with Prabhakaran.