Peter Popham: Prabhakaran talked of peace. But the man I met was doomed to die in action

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He was the most reclusive guerrilla leader of modern times, cocooning himself in the dense jungle of the Vanni in northern Sri Lanka surrounded by bodyguards and his closest comrades, never photographed, never betrayed, never spotted. It was ten years since he had given his last interview, and the only western journalist to try to reach him since then, Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times, failed in the attempt and lost an eye in the process.

But in 2002 the Norwegians coaxed the two sides in the island's civil war to the negotiating table where they brokered a ceasefire that for the first time really looked like holding. And Velupillai Prabhakaran, founder and undisputed chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was persuaded that the time was ripe to introduce himself to the world. He decided to hold a press conference.

But "thambi", "little brother" as he was known to his supporters (he was the youngest of four brothers), was taking no chances. He was not going to set foot outside the jungle for our benefit: we would have to find our way to him. And to minimise the chances of his being killed by a suicide bomb, the terrorist device he had invented and used to kill two South Asian heads of state and hundreds of other people, the security was meticulous. We were ordered to arrive in Kilinochchi, the rebel-held town closest to his hideout, a full 24 hours before the event. No indication was given of when the great man might show up. After hanging around in sticky heat for half a day, finally vans arrived to ferry us to the venue, a tin-roofed hall open to the jungle in the LTTE's Political Academy deep in the jungle. We were obliged to leave anything that might contain a nasty surprise, including satellite dishes, computer bags and even wallets, back at base. Ears, mouths and socks had all been minutely inspected.

More hours of waiting ensued in the sticky monsoon heat of evening – then suddenly he was among us, short, tubby, looking younger than his 47 years, dressed as usual in green combat fatigues, pounding up on to the stage closely hemmed in by muscular young bodyguards, all wearing sunglasses. Someone in Mr Prabhakaran's camp had been watching too many videos.

The event was the brainchild of Anton Balasingham, long the political brains of the Tigers, a former employee of the British High Commission in Colombo, drop-out from a South Bank Polytechnic PhD course, married to Adele, an Australian who was the only known western Tiger. But despite Mr Balasingham's political savvy, it soon became clear that the implications of the conference had not been thought through. Prabhakaran was held responsible for the assassinations of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa and other political leaders. The Tigers had been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by both Britain and the United States. Prabhakaran had clung to power by killing off his rivals and terrorising moderate Tamils into silence. When the LTTE seized control of the Jaffna peninsula in the island's far north, its 40,000-strong Muslim community had been given 24 hours to flee. Now peace was within his grasp, was the man who had devoted his life to the armed struggle going to announce a historic change? Could the top tiger change his stripes?

Speaking in a squeaky voice at odds with his fearsome appearance, Prabhakaran insisted that he was ready to compromise. The Tigers were committed to a Tamil homeland, nationality and self-determination, he said, but "once these fundamentals are recognized, and if the people are satisfied, we will consider giving up the demand for Eelam" – in other words for the Tamil nation state, which had always been the bedrock of his struggle.

But could a man with so much blood on his hands really change? Could the ruthless brigand chief really mutate into a democratically elected leader in a suit? We looked at him and his goons and wondered. What was he prepared to say, for example, about Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. "It is a very sensitive issue," he fudged. "It is a tragic incident that happened ten years ago."

And the suicide bombings, his own invention, the LTTE's hideous trade mark until aped by Al Qaeda? "Since we are now committed to peace," he squeaked, "we don't want to make any comment about suicide attacks at this stage..."

We piled back into our vans and rumbled through the night to another corner of the jungle where we filed our stuff, the sweat dripping onto the keyboards.

Sri Lanka was finally at peace: all over the island, Tamils and Sinhalese were united in joyful relief. But not a few of us asked ourselves if Velupillai Prabhakaran could succeed in transforming himself, or whether he would die in those fatigues.

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