COLOMBO (Reuters) — In the end, Tamil Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran appeared to have no time to bite the cyanide capsule he wore to take in case of imminent capture.
The architect of Asia’s longest-running civil war had vowed never to be taken alive, and on Tuesday, Sri Lankan army Commander General Sarath Fonseka said soldiers had killed the island’s most wanted — and until now — most elusive man.
For 37 years, Prabhakaran had done one thing better than anything else on his fearsome resume: avoid capture. But on Tuesday, there was little doubt about the elusive Tiger chief’s whereabouts, even though an LTTE official denied he was dead.
Video footage showed what the military said was Prabhakaran’s corpse with the top of his head blown off. The founder of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was shot and killed on Monday, the government said.
Before meeting his end near a marshy lagoon in the land he fought three decades to establish as a separate nation for Sri Lanka’s Tamils, Prabhakaran had almost single-handedly propelled one of the world’s most brutal and intractable wars.
He sent thousands of foes and followers to their deaths, either by signing off on their assassinations or ordering them to blow themselves up with a bomb strapped to their chest.
The man known to friends as “Thamby,” or little brother in Tamil, started out with a few friends by robbing banks to fund their rebel group in the 1970s, and eventually turned it into one of the world’s most well-funded and well-armed irregular groups.
The LTTE at its peak ruled a quarter of Sri Lanka’s land mass, maintaining a standing army, navy and even a combat air wing of small planes that carried out attacks in the capital and elsewhere during its two years aloft from 2007-2009.
A stocky man who brooked no dissent from his own organization or the wider Tamil community, Prabhakaran has been accused of eliminating all of his opponents, including lieutenants.
The list included nearly every moderate Tamil politician in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Shortly before the end, troops recovered his personal photo album and the Defense Ministry published pictures showing him frolicking with his eldest son, Charles Anthony, in a pool, or dining in relative luxury with his family.
“Those were purely personal pictures, taken like any father who has a doting family,” said Col. R. Hariharan, who served in India’s 1987-1990 peacekeeping mission to Sri Lanka.
“But it also shows, though the Sri Lankan propaganda puts it crudely, his double standards in asking suicide bombers to give up their lives.”
Prabhakaran was most often pictured in his trademark tiger stripe camouflage with men and women he had sent to their deaths on suicide missions. One notable photo showed his followers in combat boots, while he wore penny loafers.
The son of a government employee, Prabhakaran dropped out of school at 16 to fight for Tamil independence and has since been accused of drafting thousands of child soldiers, some as young as 10, and sending hundreds of people to blow themselves up.
Prabhkaran lifted a ban on marriage in the LTTE when he married university student Mathi Vathani in 1984.
The couple had three children. His heir-apparent, Charles Anthony, was killed in the final assault, and the image of his dead body was broadcast on state television on Monday.
A fan of action movies, Prabhakaran initially called his group the Tamil New Tigers, which produced the acronym TNT.
Although he caught the attention of authorities shortly thereafter, his notoriety grew after he killed the pro-government mayor of the northern city of Jaffna in 1975.
A year later, he changed his growing insurgent group’s name to reflect his goal of creating Eelam, the Tamil word for homeland.
The LTTE quickly became the most brutally efficient of several groups formed to fight against what they saw as mistreatment by successive governments, all led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority since independence from Britain in 1948.
By the time Sri Lanka’s civil war got under way in 1983, the LTTE had sidelined almost all of them.
That Prabhakaran had faced a final showdown was a marked turnaround for a man who just a few years ago owned a reputation as a ruthless tactician who killed his enemies before they became threats and commanded a fanatically loyal army.
In his annual speech in November, he said Sri Lanka’s military was “in a dreamland” if it thought it would win the war.
Editing by Bill Tarrant