A grim Vinayagyanmoorthi Muralitharan looked down at the body, inspected the belt, the ID card and the pistol that belonged to his former boss.
Moments later, he confirmed to the world that Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the elusive head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was dead.
It was a poignant moment for Muralitharan, better known as ‘Col’ Karuna.
Prabhakaran’s trusted bodyguard at one time, ‘Col’ Karuna had risen through the LTTE’s ranks to become one of his most effective and trusted military commanders before deciding to break away from the outfit in 2004.
Now a minister in the Sri Lankan government, Muralitharan was flown in into the battle zone on a small, deserted patch of land in the north-east of Sri Lanka that day to bolster the government’s claim that the LTTE chief, considered the most dangerous terrorist leader in the world had indeed been killed by the Sri Lankan Army troops.
It was a rather tame end to a firebrand leader who had created from scratch a guerilla force that boasted of a large army, a potent naval arm and a rudimentary air wing. For more than a decade, he had controlled one-third of the island nation’s territory and tormented the Sri Lankan state for over a quarter century.
It was not an easy victory for the Sri Lankan Army though. It had taken the Army 33 months of a sustained, bloody and bitter military offensive to corner and finally kill Prabhakaran in a mangrove.
The man who led that campaign, Sri Lanka’s Army Commander, Gen. Sarath Fonseka told me in an interview two days after the LTTE leader was killed that Prabhakaran and his close associates did try a last-minute deception-cum-offensive strategy.
During the interview in his office, Fonseka described Prabhakaran’s final hours: “On 18th (May) night and 19th morning, top LTTE leadership divided itself into three different groups. They attacked our forward defence line along the Nanthikadal lagoon and did manage to break through. But they had reckoned without our second and third tier defences. These three groups were led by Jeyam, Pottu Amman and Soosai. Prabhakaran and his closest bodyguards thought they had managed to escape but in reality all these LTTE fighters, around 250 of them had got trapped between our first and the second defence lines. After fierce fighting that night and the next morning, almost all the top leadership got killed in the area. We discovered Prabhakaran’s body on 19th morning.”
Gen. Fonseka’s measured and pithy narrative, meant primarily for a television audience (I was reporting for NDTV, India’s leading 24- hour news network), does not fully describe what happened on May 18 and 19.
I later pieced together the monumental events of those two days through a combination of sources.
As Fonseka said, the final battle took place in a narrow stretch of land opening to the Indian Ocean from the East and to the Nanthikadal lagoon from the West. There was an open beachhead on the East, a dusty scrubby land in the middle and a waterlogged stretch full of mangroves on the West.
The area actually has one main road access, the Highway A-35 [Paranthan-Mullaittivu] that runs along the northwest- southeast axis, slanting itself towards the lagoon bank.
There were plenty of manmade and natural barriers to overcome before one could get to the lagoon though.
Troops had to cross two causeways, march on an open beach and overcome several earth bunds and bunkers constructed by the LTTE to defend the last patch of territory in its possession.
Gen. Fonseka had deployed three Army Divisions and one Task Force in the final siege of the LTTE leadership.
Major General Kamal Gunrathne was commanding the 53 division and was also in-charge of the Task Force 8 commanded by Colonel G.V. Ravipriya.
Brig Shavindra Silva’s 58 Division which had played the main offensive role through the 33 months of Eelam War IV, continued to be the spearhead.
And then there was the 59 Division, headed by Major General Prasanna Silva, which was holding the main defensive line south of Vadduvakal causeway even as the other two divisions launched the offensive from the north. With such a massive deployment, the LTTE leadership, including Prabhakaran was truly boxed in.
There was only one possible escape route for Prabhakaran and that was through the lagoon. The Sri Lankan Army was aware of this possibility and had deployed its troops accordingly.
The countdown to the final battle actually began on May 17. According to officers involved in the operations, the LTTE made its first attempt to escape that morning. Over 150 cadres, under the leadership of a senior leader Jeyam launched a surface attack across the lagoon using small boats around 3 a.m. and managed to land on the western bank just short of the army’s defence line at Keppularu.
Troops of the 5 Vijayaba Infantry Regiment and 19 Sri Lanka Light Infantry were waiting in anticipation. After a fierce, three-hour long battle on the western bank of the lagoon, 148 LTTE cadres died. The Army too suffered several casualties.
But the Tamil Tigers had failed to breach the defence line and open an escape route for Prabhakaran and other top leaders. It was clear through this attack that the Tigers were trying to establish a foothold on the banks of the lagoon and then open up an escape route for Prabhakaran into the Muthiyankaddu jungle.
Gen. Fonseka told me: “We knew that the LTTE would try this option first. If they had managed to establish a foothold there, the leaders would have escaped across the lagoon and disappeared into the huge Muthiyankaddu jungle, making our task of finding them thatmuch more difficult. But we had anticipated their move since their tactics had not changed over the years.”
Even as this skirmish ended, the last group of civilians, held hostage by the LTTE walked into the government controlled area. Now the army was free to deal with well-trained and well-armed hardcore LTTE cadres.
In Colombo, Gen. Fonseka was personally monitoring the situation.
On ground, his formation commanders had drawn up an elaborate plan to trap Prabhakaran.
The world’s media was meanwhile descending on Colombo in droves, in anticipation of the LTTE’s military defeat and the possible capture or elimination of Prabhakaran.
I too flew into Colombo on May 16, the day when India was glued to its television sets, catching the latest results of the general elections.
For the next 24 hours, all of us were on the edge, tapping all possible sources for news from the frontline. But the official stand remained constant: Top LTTE leaders are cornered in a small patch of land, but beyond that there was no other information.
As night fell on May 17, the Sri Lankan army braced for further attacks by the remaining LTTE fighters.
And sure enough, the first desperate charge by the Tamil Tigers came after midnight on May 17.
The defence ministry website, defence.lk quotes Lieutenant Colonel Keerthi Kottachchi, Commanding Officer of the 17 Gemunu Watch regiment as saying that this attack came in the form of a deception.
According to him, a group of terrorists disguised as civilians asked the troops manning the defences along the lagoon bank to let them in around 2.30 a.m. on May 18.
“It was my troops that manned the civilian rescue point at Karayamullivaikkal. The terrorists had come along the lagoon bank and were hiding in a small islet in front of our defences. Only a small group came to our line and pleaded with the officer there to let them in saying several injured people were among the group,” Colonel Kottachchi was quoted as saying.
However, Colonel Kottachchi was well briefed by his Task Force Commander, Colonel G.V. Ravipriya and Brigade Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lalantha Gamage on the possibility that LTTE cadres might launch an attack disguising themselves as civilians.
“Since all civilians were already rescued, I had given strict instruction to not to take anyone in until dawn. Around 3 a.m., the officer at the rescue point reported that the group which described itself as civilians was becoming violent and trying to breach the defence line. So, I ordered him to fire two shots into the air to control the situation,” he said.
“Suddenly nearly 200 terrorists opened up fire and charged into our positions,” the Colonel said.
The end battle had been truly joined. Describing the operation, Lieutenant Colonel Lalantha Gamage, the 681 Brigade Commander said: “The terrorists managed to neutralize two of our bunkers, opening about a 100 metre gap in the defences. But after the first charge, most of the initial intruders stepped into firing range of our machine guns and died on the lagoon bank itself. The commandos and infantrymen killed about 100 LTTE cadres including some of the most senior leaders even before they stepped out of the water,” he added.
Meanwhile, another group comprising over 100 LTTE cadres tried to breach 58 Division defence, north of Vadduvakkal, at first light. This group also met the same fate at the hands of Special Forces soldiers and infantrymen.
A large majority of the other LTTE cadres who managed to swim across the lagoon to step on the ground were killed by the 58 Division troops manning the defence line on the coastal side of the A-35 road. Over 100 other LTTE cadres who remained hiding in the mangroves were killed by the commandos, Special Forces and infantry troops conducting mopping up operations.
The first group to meet its end at the hands of army’s counter penetration troops was in fact led by Prabhakaran’s elder son, Charles Anthony. The group was gunned down before they could walk the 250m distance from the point of infiltration.
Charles Anthony’s battered body was discovered and identified almost immediately.
It was May 18. As we flashed the news and analyzed the implications from far away Colombo, rumors, half-truths and lies were swirling endlessly.
Several conflicting reports about Prabhakaran’s whereabouts led to confused reporting all across the media that day.
One report said he had managed to escape into the Muthiyankaddu jungle; another quoted senior military officials as saying Prabhakaran, Sea Tigers Chief Soosai and LTTE’s intelligence Chief Pottu Amman were gunned down while trying to escape in a hijacked ambulance, their bodies burnt beyond recognition after the vehicle caught fire.
As it turned out, none of these reports was true. A senior military official clarified later: “It was an ambulance that belonged to the Advanced Dressing Station of the Air mobile brigade. It was destroyed by the terrorists may be in a failed attempt to hijack the vehicle. We initially received reports from the soldiers that there was a burnt body lying close to the destroyed vehicle. The body had a structure resembling Prabhakaran. But that information was proven wrong,” he added.
The clarification came much later. For most of May 18, we in the media kept reporting and repeating the story even when the defence ministry and the army refrained from officially confirming the reports of Prabhakaran’s death.
On the battlefield itself, troops had beaten back every desperate attempt by the LTTE leadership to escape the dragnet. Through the day, mopping up operations continued across the battle zone. Over 350 bodies of LTTE cadres were recovered. But it was a major task to identify each of those slain cadres. Intelligence officials got down to work, comparing photographs available with them with each of the dead.It was a painstaking job. But by late evening that day, the Army had been able to positively identify more than 30 top- and middle- level Tamil Tigers.
Wijesinghe and team instantly knew they were onto the big fish since only bodyguards of top leaders in the LTTE were allowed to carry pistols.
The veteran Sergeant immediately alerted his Brigade Commander and the Commanding Officer.
Moments later, one of the bodies was identified as that of Vinodan, one of the most senior bodyguards of the inner protection team of the LTTE leader. “Within seconds we knew the importance of the finding,” Lieutenant Colonel Lalantha Gamage later said.
The troops were now too close to their ultimate target to take any chances. Major General Kamal Gunaratne, who was closely following every move of the assault team, ordered Sgt. Wijesinghe and his team to form a defensive line and plug any possible escape route. Another eight man infantry team and a four man commando force was sent as reinforcement from the flank to support Sgt. Wijesinghe’s advance party.The second team was lead by Sergeant TM Muthubanda.
As soon as these teams advanced, they were fired upon. Another intense gun battle ensued. After an hour of heavy exchange of fire, the mangroves suddenly went silent. The two team leaders cautiously advanced into the bushes to find 18 bodies scattered around.
Among them was Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the man who had tormented the Sri Lankan state for over 30 years.
It was 8.30 a.m. on May 19, 2009. The Army commander was immediately informed. But Gen. Fonseka wanted to be doubly sure before announcing the news to the world.
After consultations with Defence Secratary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it was decided to request Vinagyanmoorty Muralitharan alias ‘Col’ Karuna to positively identify the slain LTTE leader’s body.
Daya Master, who had surrendered to the authorities less than a month ago after being an important link between the LTTE and the media, was also flown in into the battlefield.
Both immediately confirmed that the body lying on the banks of the Nanthikadal Lagoon was indeed that of Prabhakaran—the man who created and led the world’s most dreaded terrorist outfit.
The military defeat of the LTTE was complete. The President, who had just finished his address to the Parliament, was informed.
An hour later, images of Prabhakaran’s body, dressed in military fatigues, were flashed on television screens across the globe.
There was total disbelief. And several unanswered questions. How could a man who introduced so many innovative terrorist methods die such an inglorious death? Did he not have an escape plan? Why didn’t he consume cyanide as many of his cadres did when cornered? Why didn’t the man, who always had a surprise move up his sleeve, no matter how adverse the circumstances, manage to turn the tables this time?
Only his closest aides or family would have been able to provide correct answers but all of them are now dead.
Several days after Prabhakaran’s death was announced, there were many whispers about how the Army had captured Prabhakaran and his family alive, kept them in custody, tortured them and then executed them all in cold blood.
Another version said Prabhakaran himself shot the entire family— wife Madhivadhani Erambu, daughter Duvaraga (23) and younger son Balachandran (11)—before killing himself, after they were surrounded by the army.
But none of the rumors are verifiable, although it must be said that the government is silent on Madhivadhani, Duvaraga and Balachandran’s fate, leaving a lot of scope for speculation.
In the week after his death many pro-LTTE websites, Tamil magazines and newspapers had gone to the extent of claiming that Prabhakaran was still alive and the body that was displayed by the Sri Lankan army as the LTTE chief’s was in fact that of a look alike! But the Sri Lankan government had no doubt that its army had finally eliminated Prabhakaran. Nearly a month later, a DNA test also confirmed that the body recovered from the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon was of the LTTE supremo.
So what led to Prabhakaran’s ultimate downfall? Several factors contributed to the LTTE’s military defeat. But ‘Col’ Karuna’s remark to me, a day after he identified Prabhakaran’s body, perhaps encapsulates in one sentence, the reason for Prabhakaran’s self-destruction.
Karuna, who admitted feeling a bit sad to see his former boss meeting such a violent end, said: “Prabhakaran was not a man of peace. He only knew how to destroy, not build.”
There cannot be a more accurate assessment of the man who gave the world the cult of suicide bombers. Prabhakaran was the man who ordered assassination of Presidents and Prime Ministers. He was the man who inspired and motivated thousands of young men and women to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Tamil Eelam.
He however did not know when to quit. Over the years, a succession of victories had made the LTTE chief complacent and overconfident of his own abilities which prevented him from accepting changed realities. Prabhakaran lived and died as a terrorist without graduating into a political leader.
‘Col’ Karuna says Prabhakaran himself sowed the seeds of his own destruction in the post-2002 era when he accepted a Norway-brokered ceasefire but failed to carry forward the process.
(Excerpted from my 2009 book Sri Lanka: From War to Peace)