/ 8 February 2009

Sri Lanka hunts Tiger chief with victory in sight

Sri Lankan troops have smashed the Tamil Tigers’ mini-state and cornered the remaining rebels, but officials say they must catch their elusive leader to declare final victory.

The air force carried out a series of raids on locations where Velupillai Prabhakaran (54) was suspected to have sheltered over the weekend, but there had been no word about his whereabouts, the military said.

Security forces in a two-year-long drive have taken both the political and military headquarters of the Tigers, once regarded as the world’s most ruthlessly effective guerrilla outfit.

President Mahinda Rajapakse on Saturday asked the Tigers to surrender.

Earlier, he declared that Prabhakaran’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would be defeated in days, raising questions on what to do with Prabhakaran, if he were to be taken alive.

The Tiger supremo is a fugitive from justice in Sri Lanka. He was sentenced in absentia to 200 years in jail for his involvement in the January 1996 bombing of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and killing 91 people.

He is also wanted in neighbouring India for the 1991 assassination of former Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi. There is an Interpol warrant for his arrest and also a pending request from India to extradite him from Sri Lanka.

”He has to face justice here,” said Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, in a nationally televised television interview last month. ”He has to be tried and then hanged for his crimes.”

Sri Lankan troops have already captured several underground bunkers where Prabhakaran was believed to have lived.

Army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka speculated last month that Prabhakaran may have slipped out. Prabhakaran’s chief ideologue, the late Anton Balasingham, fled the island 10 years ago by boat and arrived in Thailand.

Former Tamil rebel-turned-politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan said his erstwhile comrade had run out of time unless he had already escaped.

”My belief is that he has already slipped out of the country,” Sithadthan said. ”If he has not done it already, then his chances of escaping are very slim.”

Sithadthan argues that Prabhakaran may not be able to mingle with the Tamil population and remain disguised as an ordinary citizen. He is known to have enemies within the minority Tamil community.

Prabhakaran had crushed dissent within his group and killed thousands of rival rebels in the early stages of the Tamil militancy to take the leadership of the separatist drive.

Many bereaved relatives may be waiting to settle scores, Sithadthan said.

Prabhakaran had also inspired hundreds of followers to stage suicide bombings in the fight for a separate state called Eelam.

To his followers, Prabhakaran is seen as the ”Sun God” who formed a formidable and feared guerrilla organisation out of a ragtag group of separatist rebels in 1972.

At his last press conference in April 2002, Prabhakaran was introduced as ”The president and prime minister” of the LTTE’s de facto state of Tamil Eelam. Now his ”state” has crumbled and his once-feared army is decimated.

The Tigers are now surrounded and restricted to their jungle hideouts in the north-eastern corner of Sri Lanka.

Born on November 26 1954 in the Tamil heartland of Jaffna, Prabhakaran has been a guerrilla fighter for most of his life, building up the LTTE from a motley band of rebels.

Prabhakaran went on to shape one of the world’s deadliest killing machines, building an organisation with its own army, navy and air force — all of which are now in tatters.

”We must capture Prabhakaran and the other leaders,” said military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara in a recent interview. ”Then only we can say we have completed the job.” — AFP