A shadowy and enigmatic figure, Vellupillai Prabhakaran was at the heart of Tamil militancy from the mid 1970s, when he founded the “Tamil New Tigers”, which would eventually become the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” (LTTE).
The LTTE, more commonly known as the “Tamil Tigers”, became a fearsome and well-drilled guerrilla force that controlled nearly a third of Sri Lanka at the height of its power in the mid-1990s.
Yet after a series of military setbacks, the LTTE was cornered in a small patch of coastland in the country’s north-east. Reports of Prabhakaran’s demise may well be death knell of the LTTE.
Since the mid-1970s, the LTTE’s tactics have foiled countless offensives by the Sri Lankan army and inspired independence fighters and terrorist groups throughout the world.
Under Prabhakaran’s leadership, the Tamil Tigers developed the use of suicide bombers and the cult of martyrdom, long before al Qaeda came into the public consciousness.
The LTTE also became the first non-state militia to have its own army, navy and air force, made possible by the use of an illicit international fundraising network.
The Tigers’ leader was known to demand unswerving loyalty of his men and only bestowed military ranks on his fighters after their death.
Along with other LTTE cadres, he was said to wear a cyanide capsule around his neck to swallow in the event of capture.
A lifelong struggle
Prabhakaran was born on November 26, 1954, in the Tamil heartland of Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka.
He said he was encouraged to take up arms after witnessing the oppression of Tamil civilians by Sri Lankan security forces.
His career as an outlaw began in 1972, when he founded the Tamil New Tigers (TNT), one of several organisations established to protest against the Sinhalese-dominated government of Sri Lanka. Four years later, his group was renamed the LTTE.
By 1975, Prabhakaran had been accused of the murder of the mayor of Jaffna – the first in a long list of daring plots that include the assassinations of former Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 and foreign minister Lakshman Kadigamar in 2005.
The Tamil Tiger leader is also accused of having ordered the 1991 assassination of former Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi, whose ill-thought-out peacekeeping mission to disarm the Tamil Tigers in 1987 ended in a jungle debacle.
Over the years, the leaders of rival Tamil groups have met similar fates.
But, Prabhakaran’s iron-grip on his forces suffered a major blow in 2004, when the Tamil Tigers’ commander in the east, known as Colonel Karuna, led a split in the movement.
The LTTE soon lost control of the Eastern Province, while Karuna went on to become a minister in the Sri Lankan government. Since then, the Tamil Tigers - which critics claim were increasingly composed of women and children - are said to have been depleted by defections and ruthless purges.
Prabhakaran, whose uncompromising stance scuppered efforts by other Tamil organisations to reach an understanding with the government in the 1980s, had since softened his demands for independence, saying he would agree to some form of autonomy for Tamil provinces.
While he declared a ceasefire in 2001 as part of Norwegian-brokered efforts to secure an end to the conflict, critics say this was merely a ploy for his forces to rearm before a new offensive.
With the Sri Lankan military scenting blood, it was always unlikely they would heed the LTTE’s renewed pleas for a ceasefire.
Nor could the government in Colombo ever feel safe until it had found the Tigers’ last lair and finished off their reclusive leader.