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Dead or alive? Fate of feared Tamil leader remains a mystery

He had become emblematic in the bitter Tamil separatist struggle and yesterday, as the Sri Lankan government claimed final victory in the civil war, there were reports that Vellupillai Prabhakaran has been killed in the last few days of the fighting.

The Tamil Tigers denied it, insisting their leader was behind the decision to lay down their arms. But reports from the military suggested that the body of their 54-year-old leader had been found early yesterday, after Sri Lankan troops broke into the last redoubt of the 1.2 square mile held by the rebels, and taken for identification checks.

Claims of the discovery of the corpse came from four separate Sri Lankan army officers. But the military's official spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanaykkara, said there was no certainty that Prabhakaran had been killed.

Even if he is still alive, the militant talisman's days are surely numbered. Prabhakaran, the founder of the LTTE ( Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), is estimated to have led the largest non-state combat force in the world, one which had engaged the Sinhalese military for a quarter of a century in an attritional campaign, and assassinated two heads of state.

During the long struggle, the Tamil leader had repeatedly declared that he would never surrender and die fighting for Eelam, a Tamil homeland. He and his aides carry cyanide capsules to avoid capture and he had ordered his fighters to douse his body in gasoline and set it alight to deprive his Sri Lankan enemies of a symbolic triumph.

The Sri Lankan government yesterday rejected the latest offer of ceasefire from the remaining Tamil fighters with President Mahinda Rajapaksa declaring that the 26-year-old conflict had ended in defeat for the rebels. Brigadier Nanayakkara said bodies of 70 Tamil fighters, including members of the leadership, had been recovered. Some were killed when they attempted to run the Sri Lankan military blockade by fleeing on six boats across a lagoon.

The Colombo government said 11,800 civilians escaped the battleground at the weekend, joining 200,000 other refugees now in displacement camps. But the United Nations and human rights groups say they have had not been allowed into the camps and tens of thousands remain trapped and in desperate need of aid. A UN spokesman, Gordon Weis, said: "We have no access to that [displacement camp] process. We hold grave fears for the safety of the estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people who are still inside the combat zone."

The UN says 7,000 civilians were killed and 16,700 wounded in the fighting in the period 20 January to 7 May. Since then, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed in a week of heavy shelling that human rights groups and foreign governments have blamed on Sri Lankan forces, a claim that has been denied by Colombo.

The Sri Lankan government made no secret of its desire to "kill or capture" Prabhakaran, rejecting international appeals for a ceasefire because, they maintained, it would allow the Tamil Tiger chief and his senior lieutenants to get away. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksha told David Milliband, the Foreign Secretary, during a visit: "If such a thing would happen, we would not be able to take Prabhakaran."

Sri Lankan officials openly admit that the war with the Tamil separatists had become deeply personal when it comes to Prabhakaran. The LTTE leader is seen as the driving force behind waves of suicide bombings, an action he named thatkodai, a Tamil word which translates into the phrase "the gift of love". The willingness of men and women of the rebel movement to kill themselves for the cause is seen to show the loyalty the man commands.

Prabhakaran had avoided the limelight, giving few interviews to journalists or making public statements. The Indian writer R Narayan Swamy, who wrote one of the few biographies of Prabhakaran, Inside an Elusive Mind, said: "The movement as a whole can be described in two words, Vellupillai Prabhakaran. The LTTE is Prabhakaran and Prabhakaran is the LTTE."

The Sri Lankan government last week attempted to undermine the myth surrounding him by producing captured family photos of him enjoying creature comforts not available to his troops, frolicking in a pool, celebrating his daughter's formal wedding, attending a banquet.