Tigers' leader acts the pussycat but sidesteps his past

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The Independent Online

The Guerrilla leader who pioneered the use of the human suicide bomb and who has been waging war against the Sri Lankan state for 19 years told the international media last night his organisation was now "committed to peace".

But he refused to reflect on his long career of murderous violence, which has seen his so-called Black Tigers blow to pieces two south Asian heads of state and many others.

Velupillai Prabhakaran, founder and unquestioned supremo of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil Tigers, has been underground in the forests of north-east Sri Lanka for most of the civil war, and has not given an interview for nearly 10 years. He is wanted in India for the murder of the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, which yesterday he called a "tragic incident".

He is also held responsible for killing Sri Lankan president Premadasa the same way two years later. He has brutally eliminated all rivals for leadership of Sri Lanka's Tamils, who constitute 12 per cent of the population of this island republic of 19 million. He has also fought Sri Lanka's large, modern army to a standstill.

Last night, with a ceasefire holding in the island for four months, this most elusive figure held a press conference in his jungle headquarters.

It was the Tigers' boldest bid for international acceptability yet. Sri Lanka's political situation is at a moment of violent flux. In December, President Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance lost a general election and Ranil Wickremasinghe and his United National Party came to power.

Mr Kumaratunga had tried to defeat the Tigers by military might, and failed miserably. Mr Wickremasinghe came to power on the promise of doing things differently. He has been true to his word, reciprocating the Tigers' unilateral ceasefire and accepting the mediation of the Norwegian government. Preliminary talks are scheduled to start in Thailand next month.

But the Tigers' situation is also in flux. Mr Prabhakaran's brilliant generalship – he essentially runs the Tigers as a one-man show – has kept the north and north-east of the island, where the Tamils are predominant, firmly in his grip. But the Tigers have been condemned as terrorists by the US government, and last year their crucial London office was closed on the orders of Jack Straw. Post-11 September Mr Prabhakaran has come under pressure to turn over a new leaf. Last night was his chance to show what he was capable of.

He entered the iron shed of the Tigers' Political Academy, outside the war-ravaged town of Kilinochchi, minus combat fatigues, minus Kalashnikov rifle, minus moustache; if a cyanide capsule still hangs round his neck it was out of sight. A short, plump, youthful figure of 47 with a squeaky voice, wearing a high-buttoned bush jacket, he climbed to the podium flanked by muscular young men in sunglasses, who glowered out at the mob of journalists. We had all been meticulously searched, including ears, mouths and socks, but the Tigers supremo was taking no chances.

So the imagery was mixed: goons, guns, high paranoia; but a conscious effort to look mild, civil, open, to show willingness to take even impertinent questions. The answers, however, revealed a figure who is going to have to make a massive effort to escape the shadows of his own past.

Anton Balasingham, the Tigers' London-based chief negotiator and theoretician, sat beside him, translating and trying to field the more barbed or hostile questions. Mr Balasingham will fly to Thailand to lead the Tigers' group in next month's negotiations.

Mr Prabhakaran spelt out the three core demands to which the Tigers remain committed: a Tamil homeland, nationality and self-determination. He said: "Once these fundamentals are recognised, and if the people are satisfied, we will consider giving up the demand for Eelam." Eelam is the putative Tamil nation state on which Mr Prabhakaran has long vowed not to compromise.

But there are strong grounds for caution. And the central one is Mr Prabhakaran himself. Questioned on the assassinations he ordered, his responses were flatly legalistic or worse. Referring to Rajiv Gandhi's killing, he said, "Four people are condemned to death and are seeking amnesty. At this juncture we don't wish to make any comment."

"Are you denying any involvement in the assassination?" the questioner persisted. "It is a very sensitive issue," he replied. "It is a tragic incident that happened 10 years ago."

Questioned later about the Tigers' reputation as terrorists, Mr Balasingham again chose to stonewall. "Since we are now committed to peace," he said, "we don't want to make any comment about suicide attacks at this stage."

The Sri Lankan government will negotiate with the Tigers because they are the only act in town – and the whole island is sick and tired of war. But whether a force as committed to violent struggle as Mr Prabhakaran's can change its stripes is far from clear.