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Tuesday, 2 May, 2000, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
The enigma of Prabhakaran
Vellupillai Prabhakharan
Vellupillai Prabhakharan: Freedom fighter or megalomaniac?
By South Asia analyst Alastair Lawson

From a secret jungle base in the north-east of Sri Lanka, Velupillai Prabhakaran heads the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for an independent Tamil homeland.

He has a reputation as a fearless and ruthless guerrilla leader, and under his leadership, the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, have become a highly-disciplined and highly- motivated guerrilla force.

His organisation shows no sign of being defeated militarily by the Sri Lankan army, even though it is vastly outnumbered.

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

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

Enigmatic figure

Mr Prabhakaran inspires conflicting emotions in Sri Lanka which reflect the divisons between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.

Children the government says fight for the Tigers
To his followers, he is a freedom fighter struggling for Tamil emancipation from Sinhala oppression. To his adversaries he is a megalomaniac with a brutal disregard for human life.

It is difficult to verify either viewpoint, because the Tamil Tiger leader seldom gives interviews to journalists, who are in any case restricted by the government from going into areas controlled by his forces.

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

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. 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.

Protest movement

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

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

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