Tamil Tiger chief emerges to confound reports of his death

Moving stealthily through the jungle for more than 30 years, Velupillai Prabhakaran evaded Sri Lankan forces to mastermind assassinations and suicide bombing missions. The leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) proved as elusive as he was deadly.

Then, in the chaotic aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami, it seemed the sea had achieved what the government could not. There was no sign of Prabhakaran. National television reported that he had perished in the disaster. Last week, the state-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corp reported Prabhakaran and his intelligence chief, Pottu Amman, were among the dead or missing.

But now Prabhakaran is back. In a rare foray out of the rainforest, the Tamil Tigers' driving force turned up in the rebel-held northern town of Kilinochchi.

And although his appearance was apparently to prove to doubters that he had survived the cataclysm that claimed more than 38,000 Sri Lankan lives, he also showed that the Tigers' relief effort continues in the northern and eastern chunks of the country it controls.

On the official website of the LTTE, Prabhakaran was shown monitoring aid operations and addressing locals. "Let this disaster not turn our people into a community dependent on relief aid and I request you in earnest to formulate plans that would provide them the impetus to build a future of their own," Prabhakaran was quoted as saying. He also said local communities were doing well as they set about rebuilding homes and schools, but stressed the importance of getting people back into houses as soon as possible.

Earlier, the head of LTTE's peace secretariat. S Puleedevan, discounted reports in state-run media that Prabhakaran had been killed and said the rebel chief would be meeting the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jan Petersen, who is visiting next week.

Norwegian intermediaries had been helping broker the ceasefire that has held for three years, a long pause after almost 20 years of violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives across the island.

Prabhakaran, an enigmatic figure, rarely gives interviews or appears in public. The 50-year-old has dedicated his life to establishing a Tamil homeland, Tamil Eelam, in the north and east of the island, saying his people are discriminated against by the Sinhala majority.

To many Tamils he is a hero, a swashbuckling rebel leader who puts their interests first. But most Sri Lankans consider him a brutal warmonger, whose actions perpetuated a pointless war. He became heavily involved in the Tamil protest movement in his early 20s and in 1975 was accused of being responsible for the murder of the mayor of Jaffna. His movement soon became known as the Tamil Tigers.

The most famous death he has been accused of masterminding was in 1991 when the former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber. Prabhakaran was said to be seeking revenge for Gandhi sending Indian peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s.

The Tigers have also angrily denied that they were recruiting children orphaned by the tsunami to to be child soldiers. Human Rights Watch is said to be investigating.

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