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Sri Lanka: Can Tamil Tigers go on without their leader?

The military said it shot dead Vellipulai Prabhakaran Monday, a day after the rebels admitted defeat in their 26-year war.

By Anuj ChopraCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 2009

This photograph released by the Sri Lankan military shows what the army says is the battle scene near where Tamil Tigers leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was located. The military said it shot dead Mr. Prabhakaran Monday, a day after the rebels admitted defeat in their 26-year war.

Sri Lankan Government/Reuters

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Pune, India

Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founder and chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was reportedly shot dead Monday by the Sri Lankan army, possibly bringing a final blow to the rebel group just one day after conceding defeat in one of Asia's longest-running wars.

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For decades the charismatic leader played an instrumental role in demanding a separate homeland for the island's ethnic Tamil minority and in building up the LTTE's military capabilities.

"[Prabhakaran] was the LTTE's supreme leader, its god, its icon. Minus him, the LTTE will never be its old self," says Narayan Swamy, the New Delhi-based author of a biography of the rebel leader, "Inside an Elusive Mind."

Prabhakaran is believed to have been killed while escaping the war zone in the northeast of the island in an ambulance. His body has yet to be identified. Two of his deputies – LTTE's intelligence wing leader Pottu Amman and Sea Tiger wing leader Soosai – and his eldest son, Charles Anthony, were also killed, according to the military. The claims cannot be independently verified.

A uniquely fierce fighting force

Prabhakaran founded the LTTE in the 1970s in response to discrimination against Tamils by the island's majority Sinhalese population.

For nearly three decades, his group waged war with the Sri Lankan army to achieve a separate homeland for Tamils – or Tamil Eelam – in the north and east of the island. To achieve this goal, he developed a well-trained militia cadre, naval wing, and an air force comprising of rudimentary light aircrafts, becoming the only armed separatist group in the world to have all three military wings.

The LTTE, which is considered a terrorist group by 32 countries, has committed hundreds of suicide bombings.

It has also carried out assassinations of high-profile politicians that got in its way, including former President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi 1991. The LTTE targeted Mr. Gandhi for his sending Indian troops for peace efforts in 1987 that eventually engaged in open conflict with the rebels.

Supporters of Prabhakaran have praised his dedication to the cause. During peace talks in the 1990s and in 2002 he refused to negotiate for anything less than a homeland.

But Prabakharan has been accused by the government of using the lull period of peace talks to augment his military capabilities – a claim also made by his former lieutenant, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, known as Col. Karuna Amman, who later defected to the government side.

Squeezed into a sliver of land

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