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Fisherman's son who leads the world's most successful guerrillas army

To his many enemies, no words are vile enough to describe the man who stands this week on the threshold of a historic victory in the Jaffna Peninsula. Velupillai Prabhakaran, founder and leader of the Tamil Tigers, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is Sri Lanka's Pol Pot, its Hitler: a mass murderer, a Fascist, a cold-blooded killer who has eliminated several of his closest lieutenants as well as ordering massacres of Sinhalese peasants and the assassination of an Indian prime minister and two Sinhalese presidents.

But in Madras, capital of Tamil Nadu, one hears different descriptions. Mr Prabhakaran is thambi, "little brother". He is "soft natured", moved by the plight of Tamil civilians, a loyal friend, a man of "amazing commitment". And driving around this city, India's fourth largest, one has the odd sensation of seeing Mr Prabhakaran's image everywhere. It is not true, of course: the Tigers are an illegal organisation in India, and a warrant is out for his arrest for ordering the assassination in 1991 of former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

So that cannot be Mr Prabhakaran, louring down from the huge movie hoardings, that beefy, chunky fellow with popping eyes, a thick moustache and a frizzy perm, brandishing a big revolver. But the resemblance is not an accident: two of the biggest stars of Tamil Nadu's film industry have built their careers around their resemblance to him.

Born 46 years ago into a fisherman's caste in Jaffna, Mr Prabhakaran is now the most successful guerrilla leader in the world. He began by throwing bombs at moderate Tamil politicians while a teenager, and founded his first terror group, Tamil New Tigers when he was 20. By sheer ruthlessness he has wiped out all rival Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka. But his most impressive achievement has been to transform a tiny terror outfit into a disciplined, fanatical and effective conventional force. The army of a nation of 18 million is being whipped by a brigand.

This plays well over the water in Tamil Nadu. Twelve miles of sea and 2,000 years of history separate the two communities. Differences of language, dress, food and culture now run deep. But they are all Tamils, and Mr Prabhakaran, although his name can scarcely be mentioned in India, is the Indian Tamils' hero.

Partly it is the universal appeal of a Robin Hood. "Anywhere in the world, if you're seen to be taking on the mighty and winning, people support you," argued one of his more sober admirers in Madras. But it is as the champion of Tamil nationalism that Mr Prabhakaran exerts such a powerful spell on his fellow Tamils. And now both state and national politicians are running scared of "little brother's" charisma.

Mr Prabhakaran's success in the Jaffna peninsula leaves Tamil Nadu's leaders looking as appetising as yesterday's cold potatoes. Panrutti Ramachandran, a former state minister, said: "The people of Tamil Nadu want the Tigers to beat the Sri Lankan army." "If anyone speaks up against Mr Prabhakaran, he risks getting beaten up."