Tamil Tiger separatists on Tuesday said their founder-leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran was leading the battle against the Sri Lankan army, which has thrust into the last rebel-held area and prompted an exodus of 52,000 civilians. Here are questions and answers on one of the world’s most elusive guerrillas and his fight on the Indian Ocean island.
Who is Prabhakaran?
The son of a government employee, the 54-year-old began fighting against Sri Lankan government mistreatment of his Tamil minority in 1972. He initially called his group the Tamil New Tigers. Although he caught the attention of authorities shortly thereafter, his notoriety grew after he killed the pro-government mayor of the northern city of Jaffna in 1975. A year later, he changed his growing insurgent group’s name to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The goal of the LTTE was to form a separate state for Tamils called “Eelam”, homeland in Tamil. The LTTE quickly became the most brutally efficient of several groups formed to fight against what they saw as mistreatment by successive governments, all led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority since independence from Britain in 1948. By the time Sri Lanka’s war got underway in 1983, Prabhakaran was already beginning to eliminate rival groups and within several years had made sure his was the only show in town.
Why does he command such loyalty?
He is said to be tremendously persuasive and has built up his mystique as a master guerrilla for decades. He is known by friends as “Thamby”, little brother in Tamil. His single-minded devotion to his cause helped him create a cult of personality so strong followers willingly carry out suicide bombings on his orders. Annually on his birthday of Nov. 24, Prabhakaran has given a speech setting out his year’s agenda. The LTTE calls the event its martyrs day.
Why is Prabhakaran such a wanted man?
Long before his group was placed on US, EU, Indian and Canadian terrorist lists, Prabhakaran was a wanted man. He and other LTTE leaders are on Interpol wanted lists and were convicted by an Indian court for the suicide bombing assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. For a 1996 blast at the Central Bank in Colombo, which killed nearly 100 people, he faces a 200-year sentence if captured alive. Sri Lanka has said he would be tried for his crimes, but on Monday President Mahinda Rajapaksa said he would hang. India also wants him extradited.
Is he likely to be caught alive?
Highly unlikely. Prabhakaran wears a vial of cyanide to be taken in case of capture, and demands the same of his followers. According to an authoritative biography, “Inside an Elusive Mind” written by Indian journalist M.S. Narayan Swamy, Prabhakaran has in the past told his bodyguards to douse him in petrol and burn him alive if he was about to be captured.
Where is he?
The military last month said witnesses who fled the war zone said he was still there. On Tuesday, LTTE peace secretariat head Seevaratnam Puleedevan said Prabhakaran was on the battlefield. However, some speculate he escaped using a small boat or on foot during heavy fighting that killed several top Tiger commanders. Others think he must have left the country long ago, fleeing to possible venues including Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and South Africa. At the end of the day, his whereabouts remain a mystery to all but his closest confidantes.