Nine lives of Tiger Supremo

Sugeeswara Senadhira looks back on the many attempts on LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran before his death one year ago

Velupillai Prabhakaran, a dreaded terrorist to many, Sun God to some, breathed his last a year ago on the sandy banks of Nanthikadal lagoon.

Some people are aware that he survived several assassination attempts since he led the handful of ill-equipped, ill-clad cadres of Tamil New Tigers (TNT) 35 years ago to kill Alfred Duraiyappah, the then SLFP Mayor of Jaffna.

One of the first occasions he had a narrow shave was when his longtime comrade in arms - turned rival - Uma Maheswaran took a pot shot at him at a busy side street of Pondy Bazaar in Madras (now Chennai) in broad daylight. The bullet meant for Prabhakaran sailed past this short stocky man and hit Thambipillai Maheswaran, another Tamil militant who was with the LTTE leader.

While there are many reports on this incident, there are a few lesser known instances of assassination attempts on Prabhakaran. This writer has come to know of two futile plans to kill Prabhakaran- the first was towards the tail end of 1980s and the second was after the turn of this century.

In the first incident, a Tamil dissident who was with the LTTE for years and later switched over to the TELO informed a junior intelligence officer in the North, that he could kill Prabhakaran, if he was given a safe passage to India and sufficient funds to start a new life. Information about this offer finally reached the then Defence Secretary Major General Hamilton Wanasinghe, former Commander of Sri Lanka Army.

Subsequently, the potential assassin’s background was checked by the police and military intelligence and it was found out that he was a close associate of the late TELO leader Sri Sabharathnam who was killed together with 300 of his followers by the LTTE. He had a genuine grudge against the LTTE for killing many of his TELO colleagues and his leader Sri Sabharathnam.

The plan was to throw a grenade at Prabhakaran during his weekly meeting of LTTE division heads at a location in Kilinochchi. There were several venues for this meeting and the potential assassin had access to one of them. As Prabhakaran was known to change his plans at the last minute and select a different venue, the assassin said he may have to wait for a few weeks. He asked his contact to keep a powerful motor boat and money ready at a pre-selected place on the coast for a quick getaway to Rameswaram, where he had a hiding place.

On the second week the LTTE meeting was scheduled at the venue known to the assassin. When Prabhakaran arrived about a dozen divisional heads were present and the house was cordoned off by Prabhakaran’s elite bodyguards. However, the assassin was already in hiding near a window and the moment Prabhakaran stood up to address the group, he removed the pin of the grenade and threw it through the window. It sailed over Prabhakaran and exploded after hitting the far side of the wall. The assassin did not wait to see whether Prabhakaran was killed but made use of the ensuing mayhem to make his escape. When he reached the coast, the boat was ready and within minutes he was away to India with the pay packet in his pocket.

It was much later that the story was out that Prabhakaran had a narrow escape and two of his bodyguards had died and three others had been injured.

The second attempt to assassinate the Tiger supremo was not through a frontal attack but by a meticulously planned method adopted after much research. It was no secret that Prabhakaran was a diabetic and needed insulin injections every day. The insulin was smuggled into Wanni by several LTTE cadres and sympathisers.

One of them was a Registered Medical Practitioner (RMP), a Tamil, residing in Badulla. He served as an RMP in a tea estate and after retirement started a private practice in Badulla.

After keeping a close watch on him for several weeks sleuths came to know that he received a packet of expensive insulin vials every month and was a regular traveller to Wanni. As an old and reputed medical practitioner the authorities did not suspect that the LTTE had recruited him as a trusted carrier.

A senior, young and determined intelligence officer kept a close watch on the RMP’s dispensary and learned that there was no watcher during the night. After ascertaining the next date of supply of insulin, he broke into the dispensary during the night. He found the insulin vials in the refrigerator and removed two of the vials and replaced them with two vials he had carried. Those two insulin vials were adulterated with cyanide and if injected, the person could die within seconds.

The following day, the unsuspecting RMP made his usual journey to Wanni carrying his packet of insulin for Prabhakaran. He returned the following day and continued his practice.

A few days later, the RMP’s body was found at the dispensary. He had been shot at close range and there were three gunshot wounds on his body. The police could not find any traces of the killers and all the neighbours said the RMP was a popular medical practitioner and did not have enemies.

The sleuths are still in the dark as to how Prabhakaran or his bodyguards found out about the poisonous vials. It is presumed that after the poisonous vials were discovered, the LTTE leader must have suspected that the medical practitioner had a hand in the assassination attempt. That could have been the reason for killing the RMP.

There are many ifs and buts, but the fact remains that the assassination attempts failed to eliminate the ruthless Tiger supremo. He lived for few more years, only to meet his Waterloo at Nanthikadal lagoon.

(The writer is Consultant Director, Policy Research and Information at the President’s Office)

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