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Sri Lanka's Military Mission: Find Tamil Tigers Leader

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's get an update now on another troubled part of the world where there's a civil war - Sri Lanka. That civil war seems to be getting worse. Hundreds of civilians have died in the last few days. Diplomats and aid officials believe many were victims of shelling by Sri Lanka's army, though the army denies this.

The rebel group known as the Tamil Tigers is ignoring international appeals to stop using Tamil civilians as human shields. And the Sri Lankan government is ignoring international appeals for a pause in the fighting. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Sri Lanka's military has its sights trained on one man.

PHILIP REEVES: The war in Sri Lanka is entering its bloodiest phase. The Tamil Tigers and tens of thousands of civilians they are holding hostage are trapped in roughly one and a half square miles of coastland. The Sri Lankan government forces are closing in. They want to eliminate the separatists forever. They're particularly eager to get one man. They say Velupillai Prabhakaran is in the war zone.

Prabhakaran, who is 54, has led the Tamil Tigers for more than three decades. Their goal is to secure a homeland in the island's north and east for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. His forces were once the most feared and ruthless guerilla outfit in the world.

Mr. SANDEEP DIKSHIT (Journalist): This is a terrorist organization which had a navy, which had an air force.

REEVES: Sandeep Dikshit, a journalist with The Hindu newspaper in India, is an expert on Sri Lanka's civil war.

Mr. DIKSHIT: It was a very, very lethal organization and very, very motivated, so in that effect, you know, in a back-handed way, Prabhakaran was really a top-ranking guerilla leader of the 20th century, one would say.

Mr. VELUPILLAI PRABHAKARAN (Tamil Tigers Leader): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Prabhakaran has given few interviews, restricting himself to an annual speech commemorating the thousands of Tamils who've died under his command, some as suicide attackers. Those who have studied his career say he motivates his forces using a combination of charisma, arrogance and authoritarianism. The Tamil Tigers, or LTTE as they're also known, include men, women, and even, to the horror of the outside world, children. The LTTE has a reputation for being highly disciplined and unusually inventive.

Its tiny air force carried out raids on Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, using propeller planes assembled from parts smuggled into the jungle. Prabhakaran's fortunes have greatly changed in a short time. Just a few years ago, the Tamil Tigers controlled much of the island's north. They had their own police force, taxation department, and judiciary. Rajiv Sikri, a former senior Indian diplomat, says Prabhakaran made some serious mistakes.

Mr. RAJIV SIKRI (Former Indian Diplomat): Yeah, I think Prabhakaran always overestimated his strength. He failed to realize that politics is the art of the possible, so he could have cut a deal a few years ago but chose not to because he was trying for total victory.

REEVES: Prabhakaran may never be captured alive. He's believed to wear a cyanide capsule around his neck. But if he is, the Sri Lankan government can expect pressure from India to hand him over. India holds Prabhakaran responsible for the assassination of its prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991. India has a large Tamil population. M.R. Narayan Swamy, author of a book on Prabhakaran, says that assassination did huge damage to support in India for the Tamil Tigers' cause. He sees it as Prabhakaran's biggest mistake.

Mr. M.R. NARAYAN SWAMY (Author): It kind of completely cut off the political class, the ruling class from India, from the LTTE, and showed the LTTE was a force which could not be trusted, which could not be believed.

REEVES: The Tamil Tigers are now facing total military defeat. That doesn't mean the conflict's over. Sri Lanka's Tamils have long suffered discrimination from governments dominated by the island's Sinhalese majority. Rajiv Sikri says the next step is the search for a political solution.

Mr. SIKRI: The grievances of the Tamils are real, and now I think the more difficult task ahead is how to bring back the Tamils into a united Sri Lankan fold to address their real grievances.

REEVES: For now, all eyes are on Prabhakaran. No one knows what his fate will be, but the world's media is preparing his obituary. M.R. Narayan Swamy thinks he'll be remembered in widely different ways.

Mr. SWAMY: There will be people who would continue to consider him a leader, a fighter, a man who did not surrender, who fought and fought, an icon; but there will be plenty of people who would call him a terrorist, who would call him a megalomaniac, who would call him nothing but a ruthless killer.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.