'Pol Pot' turns Tigers' heroes into traitors: The martyr's death of a popular Tamil commander has unleashed a purge among the guerrillas, writes Tim McGirk in Jaffna

TWO contrary forces were tugging the hundreds of Tamils who had massed at a Jaffna political rally: the macabre fascination of witnessing a man being executed, and the fear that, any second, a plane from the Sri Lankan air force would appear out of the tropical sunset and drop a bomb on them.

Bombings and public executions are becoming commonplace in the 'liberated' zone known as Tamil Eelam, on the northern tip of Sri Lanka. It is a society run on rumour, secrecy and the cult of martyrdom. Boy soldiers wear talismans around their necks containing a cyanide capsule. In this regime, led by Prabakharan, the elusive guerrilla chief, suicide is preferable to capture, fanaticism to common sense. And, overnight, heroes can turn to traitors.

As it happened, the enemy artillery shells fell wide, and the executions - rumours, again - either had taken place secretly or the Tiger command were adding to the charges against the victims.

The rally was to mark the death on 16 January last year of a commander, Kittu. The fishing boat carrying Kittu and seven Tamil guerrillas fell under Indian navy surveillance as soon as it sailed from Singapore. According to one reliable version, Kittu radioed Prabakharan for orders and was told to die rather than surrender. This Kittu did by blowing up the boat, himself and the crew. It was a good martyr's death.

A bright man with an easy laugh, who often toured the guerrilla units with a small monkey perched on his shoulder, Kittu was also Prabakharan's close friend and most trusted adviser. Rumours spread that Kittu had been betrayed to the Indians, and by last July Prabakharan had placed his two most senior commanders, Yogi and Mahattya, under arrest.

It was the possibility of Mahattya and Yogi's execution, Tiger-style, blindfolded and with a revolver shot to the brain, that drew the large crowd to the temple lake in Jaffna. The Tamils awaited with a mixture of curiosity and horror. Both commanders were popular and viewed as moderates capable of at last striking a truce with the Sri Lankan government, one that would give the Tamils greater autonomy over the north and eastern parts of the island and end this 10-year-long civil war that has left thousands dead on both sides and more than 500,000 refugees.

Both Yogi and Mahattya were replaced by inexperienced soldiers in their early twenties, whose only qualifications were their combat prowess and unswerving loyalty to Prabakharan, 39, a secretive man who is a brilliant strategist. His Tigers, fewer than 8,000, have kept Sri Lanka's army of 90,000 at bay.

Many of those who believed in the struggle for a homeland for the island's three million Tamil minority now fear that the Tigers have begun to devour themselves. Nine 'betrayers' were publicly shot during the past few weeks, and the investigation into Kittu's death has spiralled into a purge of more than 100 top cadres. Even the movement's ideologist, Anton Balasingham, is reportedly suspect.

In an atmosphere where bombs and shells pelt down regularly, and where the 800,000 Tamils on the Jaffna peninsula are besieged by an economic and military blockade, conditions are ideal for producing legions of boys and girls willing to die for their chief. Prabakharan is often compared to the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, for his ruthlessness. But he also runs his force like a fanatical cult. His child soldiers, often as young as 13, are banned from drinking, sex and singing non-revolutionary songs.

In schools, children are shown a recruitment video for the Black Tigers - the Tamil squad of suicide killers, widely held responsible for the deaths of the Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, last May and of the former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991. In the video, a boy leaps jubilantly in the air when his name is picked for a mission, and he is shown dutifully sweeping the barracks before he hops into a bomb-laden car and blows himself to bits. The only perk for the assassins is they are treated to a lavish supper with Prabakharan before their final mission.

I visited a hospital ward full of guerrillas wounded in the assault on Pooneryn base last November in which more than 1,200 government soldiers were massacred. None of the injured Tigers was older than 17; many were 14. Having put down their guns, they returned to childish pleasures, crafting discarded medical tubes of plastic into delicate little fishes. If not for the cyanide capsules hanging from their necks, it would have been impossible to tell these boys were soldiers.

COLOMBO - At least 15 passengers were killed and up to 40 injured when a bomb believed to be planted by Tamil Tigers exploded in a crowded bus in north-central Sri Lanka, Reuter reports. The bus, carrying mostly Sinhalese, was nearing a police checkpoint when the bomb went off near an army camp at Rambewa in Anuradhapura district, about 200 km (125 miles) from Colombo.

(Map omitted)

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