Family album of the Tamil who invented suicide bombings

Sri Lankan military releases photos of ruthless rebel leader

His whole adult life he has been in hiding, directing Asia's longest modern war, but as the shells continued to rain down on the strip of land his rebels hold, another, sweeter side of the life of the Tamil Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran was put on view by the Sri Lankan government.

The album of plundered family snaps shows him enjoying the sort of lifestyle his thousands of devoted cadres could only dream of: frolicking in a pool, celebrating his daughter's wedding, tucking into a banquet.

The ministry contrasted the comforts enjoyed by the man who is presumably still at bay in the Tigers' last hold-out with photos showing the primitive conditions in which his soldiers have long been required to live and fight.

Meanwhile, as his troops fought on, thousands of civilians trapped in the war's brutal end game are dying. A doctor inside the 5sq km strip on the island's north-east coast still controlled by the rebels reported that renewed shelling had killed at least 50 people in the only hospital in the so-called "safe zone".

It was the second day running and the third time in a month that government shells rained down on the hospital in the parcel of land where the Tigers are making their last stand and where an estimated 50,000 civilians are trapped. Video released by Tamil Vision in Canada showed wounded civilians sprawled on the ground under makeshift tents, fanned by relatives while flies swarmed around them, with one victim wailing in the background.

Speaking from the hospital, Dr V Shanmugarajah told Associated Press by telephone that one shell landed in the hospital's administrative office while another struck a ward crammed with patients who had been injured by earlier shelling.

Another doctor, Thurairaja Varatharajah, the most senior health officer in the conflict zone, said the attack killed at least 50 people, including patients, relatives and a health aide, and wounded another 60. He said the shelling continued all day.

"We are unable to treat people because a lot of aides have fled the hospital," Dr Varatharajah said by telephone to Colombo.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said that shelling killed one of its workers and prevented a Red Cross ferry off the coast of the war zone from landing and evacuating wounded civilians.

The reports belied Sri Lankan government claims that it had not fired heavy artillery into the safe zone for weeks. Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said: "Neither the Sri Lankan army nor the Tamil Tigers appears to have any reluctance in using the civilians as cannon fodder."

The ferocity of the assault on the Tigers' last redoubt reflects the desperation of the Sri Lankan army to finally finish off the man who has ruthlessly and charismatically led the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's struggle for an independent Tamil state on the island.

The reclusive Prabhakaran, who was born in the Jaffna peninsula in 1954, has been fighting the Sinhalese state since he was a teenager.

He eliminated all his rivals, invented the suicide bomber as a weapon of war and continues to inspire fanatical loyalty in his troops.

As these photographs show, however, he has not spent his whole life in a bunker.

Whether captured or killed, Prabhakaran will be the Sri Lankan army's great prize – but if rumours swirling in India this week are to be believed, they may come up empty-handed, even when the rebels' resistance is finally crushed.

The Indian Express reported rumours in Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, that Prabhakaran may already be dead or may have fled to the safety of Europe.

Or perhaps he has merely slipped out of the war zone, ready to launch the war again when the army claims it is all over.

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