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Public face of the Tamil Tigers

By Ethirajan Anbarasan
BBC News

SP Thamilselvan (file photo)
SP Thamilselvan was known for his trademark smile

SP Thamilselvan - who died in a Sri Lankan air force raid on Friday morning - is the most senior Tamil Tiger leader to have been killed in recent years.

The death of their media-savvy political wing leader at the age of 40 means the rebels have lost an experienced and suave political negotiator.

For many years SP Thamilselvan was the public face of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Both the Tigers and the military have been accused of gross human rights abuses throughout Sri Lanka's long-running civil war.

Since 1994, he had been a member of the rebel peace negotiating team and had participated in almost every round of face-to-face talks with the Sri Lankan authorities and Norwegian mediators.

I met him on a number of occasions in recent years, both in Sri Lanka and during peace talks in Geneva.

He always came across as smiling and friendly - although his enemies say behind the warm exterior there lurked a ruthless, hardened military man.

Even recently, a senior rebel source told me Thamilselvan was away in the north-west heading a rebel fighting unit.

Rise to prominence

Unlike many of his comrades, SP Thamilselvan did not look like a veteran guerrilla fighter. Dressed in a suit he could have passed himself off as an executive and was very at ease at the negotiating table.

He was dedicated to the rebel cause and firmly believed that one day they would realise their dream of a separate nation - Eelam - for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils.

His demise may bring about a hardening of attitude in the LTTE [Tamil Tiger] hierarchy
Analyst DBS Jeyaraj

He was always keen to tell the world what was happening to the Tamil population in north-east Sri Lanka.

After the devastating tsunami in December 2004, he was quick to ring the BBC Tamil service to say what was going on inside rebel-held territory.

He supervised relief efforts in rebel-held areas, and was praised in many quarters for his actions.

While sometimes long-winded, Mr Thamilselvan was skilled at reflecting the views of the rebel leadership.

Like many other rebel cadres, he started in the armed wing and rose in prominence due to his military exploits.

Soon, he entered into the inner circles of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

When Prabhakaran was in India in the early 1980s, Thamilselvan was his de facto aide-de-camp.

"He was very close to the LTTE leader. His demise may bring about a hardening of attitude in the LTTE hierarchy," according to Sri Lanka analyst DBS Jeyaraj.

SP Thamilselvan's closeness to the Tiger leader also helped him to rise in the rebel hierarchy.

He was once the commander of the strategically-important Jaffna region. Many accuse him of leading a group carrying out assassinations in that area at the time.

Skilled with the media

Following a battlefield injury in 1993, SP Thamilselvan was asked to focus more on political matters.

It was to prove a crucial period for the rebels. At the time the LTTE was considered basically a military movement and its gradual entry into politics was a big challenge for the organisation.

The political wing leader soon adapted himself to his new role.

He led the Tigers' negotiating team during the first ever direct peace talks with the Sri Lankan government in 1994-95.

More recently, he represented the LTTE in various rounds of peace talks, including the last, fruitless meeting in Geneva late last year.

SP Thamilselvan knew how to handle the international media and - through an interpreter - was adept at handling prickly issues such as child conscription, political killings and questions on the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

After rebel ideologue Anton Balasingham died last year, the LTTE projected SP Thamilselvan as their chief negotiator.

The rebels may find him difficult to replace.

He is survived by his wife, an eight-year-old daughter and a son of four.

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