Sri Lanka searches for rebel leader
By RAVI NESSMAN,Associated Press Writer AP - Tuesday, January 20
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - A special forces team waits on high alert to search for one man. Fighter jets stand poised to strike. Drones scour the jungle for hidden bunkers, while intelligence agents interrogate captured guerrillas.
As Sri Lankan troops wage large-scale battles against rebel forces in the north, they are also desperately trying to find, capture or kill Velupillai Prabhakaran, the autocratic leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Many in the military believe that nabbing Prabhakaran _ or even forcing him to flee abroad _ would send the rebels into a tailspin, crushing their morale and decision-making structure so badly the group would fall apart.
"If he has not fled the country already, we will be able to capture Prabhakaran very soon," Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said in a TV interview last week.
Others say it will not be easy to find a man who has repeatedly eluded capture during the quarter-century civil war on this island at the southern tip of India.
Over three decades, the portly, mustachioed Prabhakaran transformed what was little more than a violent gang into a feared military force with artillery, a navy and a tiny airwing that controlled a swathe of northern Sri Lanka he saw as the core of a breakaway state for the country's Tamil minority.
But he was also seen as a cultish figure, who demanded unquestioning devotion from his followers and eliminated all potential rivals from the group. He trained scores of suicide attackers, mandated that his main fighters carry cyanide vials around their necks to bite into upon capture and created a stringent code of conduct that prevented his troops from marrying until their mid-20s.
The loss of Prabhakaran would be devastating to the group, said Indian journalist M.R. Narayan Swamy, who wrote a biography of the rebel leader.
"He is their brain. He is their heart. He is their god. He is their soul, and the whole organization runs around him," he said.
With government forces closing in on the rebels' last remaining stronghold in the northeast, military officials said they believe Prabhakaran is hiding in a heavily fortified bunker in the thick jungles of Puthukkudiyiruppu and Vishwamadu.
He is likely protected by several rings of security, including a tight inner circle manned by fiercely loyal Black Tiger fighters, members of the group's suicide squad, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The officials said they were using spy planes that monitored satellite phone transmissions and took photos of the thick jungle region to try to locate his bunkers. They were also interrogating captured fighters for information on his hideout.
Fighter jets and two small teams of special forces fighters waited for word on his location to pounce, they said.
"We are hunting for him," military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. "We are using every method."
Air force jets bombed a suspected Prabhakaran hideout last week, but there was no indication he was inside.
The military has also set up a naval blockade off the country's northeast coast, where the rebels' continue to fight, to prevent Prabhakaran from escaping.
However, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, Sri Lanka's army chief, said Saturday the rebel leader might be able to slip through on a speedboat, head for a larger craft in the Bay of Bengal and escape, possibly to Africa.
His flight, however, would be seen as a betrayal of his fighters and his cause, and it would likely destroy the group, said one Western diplomat.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said if Prabhakaran is captured, he will be sent to India to face punishment for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian prime minister killed by a female Tamil Tiger suicide bomber for sending Indian troops here.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the defense secretary and the president's younger brother, has said Sri Lanka should keep Prabhakaran and hang him.
Swamy said the government should not get too confident; the rebel leader has managed to elude certain arrest many times before.
"If it had been easy to capture Prabhakaran, he would have been caught a long time ago," he said.
And it is unlikely Prabhakaran would allow himself to be taken alive, Swamy said.
Two decades ago, when Indian peacekeepers were closing in, Prabhakaran told his aides to kill him and burn his body rather than let him be captured, Swamy said.
His current orders are probably the same, he said.
"They do believe in a cult of suicide so him committing suicide in a situation of extreme danger would be nothing at all," he said.
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