Page last updated at 23:34 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 00:34 UK

Tamil Tiger doubt over leader's demise

Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2006
Velupillai Prabhakaran's death has been disputed among Tamil Tigers

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo

At first glance, the admission by the LTTE's head of international relations, Selvarasa Padmanathan, that their supreme leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is dead might seem like the Tamil Tigers simply bowing to the inevitable.

Without mentioning Prabhakaran by name, he said in his written statement that "our incomparable leader and supreme commander… attained martyrdom" fighting what he called the "military oppression of the Sri Lankan Government… In spite of the numerous pleas from his senior commanders, he refused to leave his people and along with his fellow freedom fighters perished in combat with the Sri Lankan forces."

At the same time, in an exclusive interview with the BBC Tamil Service, Mr Padmanathan said that after three decades of violent insurrection, the LTTE had given up violence and would "enter a democratic process" to achieve self-determination for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.

'Time is right'

But then came the counter-statements - and they, too, purported to be from the LTTE.

Sri Lanka soldiers carry the body of Prabhakaran
The military took some time to confirm the death

The pro-LTTE website,, quoted the Tigers' intelligence department as saying that the movement's leadership was safe and would "re-emerge when the right time comes".

There was more. It cited the LTTE's Department for Diaspora Affairs, DDA, as saying "it would not comment without explicit authorisation from the LTTE leadership".

The problem is that those leaders are believed to be mainly dead.

The head of the intelligence department, Pottu Amman, has been missing since the final days of fighting a week ago.

The DDA is completely unheard of, according to seasoned Sri Lanka-watchers - although many among the Tamil diaspora spread across numerous countries do indeed refuse to believe that Prabhakaran has perished.

Nevertheless, it appears that a fissure may be opening up within the ranks of LTTE supporters after the apparent death - a split over whether to acknowledge Prabhakaran's death, and on how to proceed.

Additional ambiguity

The ambiguities surrounding his death were added to by the government and the army here.

State television announced his death on Monday last week.

But by that night, although the army chief was saying his body was among hundreds found, the military spokesman was saying there was no confirmation.

Only on Tuesday was footage broadcast which, it was claimed, showed the guerrilla leader's body.

The authorities gave varying accounts of how and when he died, including that he and two senior colleagues were trying to flee by ambulance and were ambushed, or that he was found dead near the lagoon bordering the combat zone.

In due course, they said DNA samples had been taken for tests to confirm that the body was Prabhakaran's - but not long after that, the army chief said the authorities had cremated the body and scattered his ashes in the sea.

Conspiracy theories

The hurried cremation and varying accounts of what happened may foster further conspiracy theories.

Police patrol in Colombo
Experts believe further attacks could happen from Tiger sleeper cells

Even before the cremation was announced, and despite the body being publicly identified by LTTE defector and minister Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan ("Colonel Karuna"), one Tamil parliamentarian was saying he doubted it was really Prabhakaran.

It may be that the two nascent streams of reaction to the news of his death will crystallise into something more solid.

One is Mr Padmanathan's approach - to acknowledge the death and continue some form of struggle for Tamil rights - according to his interview, within a democratic framework.

The other - aired on - is not to acknowledge that Prabhakaran was killed by the Sri Lankan military, and to perpetuate the idea that he is somehow invincible.

The question, then, would be which will hold sway.

One expert, who prefers to remain anonymous, says Mr Padmanathan is by far the most senior surviving LTTE official as so many of the other leaders, as well as more junior fighters, were killed.

He is widely believed to be the same man as Kumaran Pathmanathan, who for years was the LTTE's chief arms procurer.

Given his seniority, his acknowledgement of Prabhakaran's death might in due course take a firmer hold.

So, too, might his message of giving up violence.

Government defiance

Another expert, also speaking anonymously, believes future attacks, such as bombings, cannot be ruled out within Sri Lanka because there may still be sleeper cells of trained LTTE members waiting to strike.

In any case, the government is taking a firm line on the Tigers.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has told the BBC that he rejects their offer to take up democratic politics as he does not believe they can do this after years of violent activities.

According to the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror newspaper, the government has sought Interpol's assistance in locating and arresting Mr Padmanathan.

And the army chief, General Sarath Fonseka, has told state television that despite the end of the war, he wants to raise the army's strength by 50%, from 200,000 to 300,000, in order to prevent any LTTE revival.

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