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Tuesday, 9 April, 2002, 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK
The enigma of Prabhakaran
Vellupillai Prabhakharan in the early 1990s
Freedom fighter or megalomaniac?
Velupillai Prabhakaran, who heads the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is only just emerging from the shadows after years as one of the world's most reclusive rebel leaders.

Aftermath of Tiger suicide bomb in 1998
The Tigers' tactics have been ruthless

During the 20 years of Sri Lanka's ferocious civil war, he has seldom spoken to journalists and has almost never been seen in public.

He has built a reputation as a fearless and ruthless fighter, dedicated to the struggle for an independent Tamil homeland in the country's north and east.

Operating from his secret jungle base, he turned the Tamil Tigers into a highly disciplined, motivated and feared guerrilla force.

But following the signing in March 2002 of a permanent ceasefire agreement with the Sri Lankan Government, the veteran guerrilla is taking steps towards the political mainstream.

Enigmatic figure

Mr Prabhakaran's decision to hold a press conference on Wednesday has been seen as a good sign that he wants to put his full backing behind the peace process.

He remains, however, a deeply enigmatic figure.

Path to ceasefire
Dec 2001: Ranil Wickramasinghe elected prime minister on a pro-peace mandate
Dec 2001: Tigers declare unilateral ceasefire. The government reciprocates
Jan 2002: Government eases economic embargo on rebel-held areas
Feb 21: Two sides agree permanent ceasefire.
April 9: Velupillai Prabhakaran due to make rare public appearance

The rebel leader has inspired conflicting emotions in Sri Lanka, reflecting the deep divisions between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.

To his followers, he is a freedom fighter struggling for Tamil emancipation from Sinhala oppression.

To his adversaries he has traditionally been seen as a megalomaniac with a brutal disregard for human life.

His movements between his various jungle hideouts have always been the subject of great secrecy, and he is reported to have narrowly avoided assassination or capture on numerous occasions.

Mr Prabhakaran was reputed to wear a cyanide capsule around his neck, to be swallowed in the event of his capture.

He has expected the same dedication from his troops, many of whom the Sri Lankan Government says are either women or children.

Politics and martial arts

Born on the 26 November 1954, in the northern coastal town of Velvettithurai, on the Jaffna peninsula, Vellupillai Prabhakaran is the youngest of four children.

He was an average student, shy and bookish.

LTTE logo
The Tamil Tigers were formed during an upsurge of nationalism in the 1970s

He said in one of his rare interviews that he was fascinated by Napoleon and Alexander the Great, devouring books on their lives.

He was also influenced by the lives of two Indian leaders, Subhash Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh, both of whom were involved in the armed struggle for independence from Britain.

Angered as a teenager by what he saw as discrimination against Tamils in politics, employment and education, he began attending political meetings and practising martial arts.

He soon became heavily involved in the Tamil protest movement, and in 1975 was accused of being responsible for the murder of the mayor of Jaffna.

That assassination was one of the first killings carried out by the burgeoning Tamil nationalist movement.

He was instrumental in the foundation of the Tamil Tigers around that time.

Accused of killings

The killing of the mayor of Jaffna is not the only high-profile murder for which Mr Prabhakaran is the prime suspect.

Prabhakaran signs the ceasefire agreement in March
Prabhakaran is moving towards the political mainstream

He has also been accused by India of playing a key role in the murder of the former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991.

Mr Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber who, the Indians say, was acting on orders from Mr Prabhakaran.

It is alleged that Mr Prabhakaran wanted to avenge the Indian Prime Minister's decision in the mid- 1980s to deploy Indian peace-keeping troops in Sri Lanka.

Despite the conflicting views surrounding Mr Prabhakaran, there is one point that both the Sinhala and Tamil communities agree on.

He is the domineering force in the rebel movement, and without his consent peace in Sri Lanka will never be attainable.

See also:

09 Apr 02 | South Asia
Tamil rebel leader ends isolation
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