Tamil rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran spent most of his life waging war against the Sri Lankan government, and turning a small band of rebels into one of the world's most highly disciplined and ruthless insurgencies.

To his followers, Prabhakaran was a freedom fighter and a steady champion in the battle to establish a separate state for the ethnic Tamil minority.  To his detractors, he was a brutal ruler who had complete disregard for human life and who pursued power at any cost.

Prabhakaran began his Tamil Tiger insurgency 26 years ago.  

Since then, he championed a cult of martyrdom and fought the Sri Lankan government to a near-standstill.  He was implicated in the deaths of top politicians, including former Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.  It has been alleged that he personally ordered Gandhi's assassination.

Prabhakaran also is known for pioneering the tactic of suicide bombings, often using young women to carry out attacks against civilian targets.  

At its height, his insurgency, called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, was awash in weapons and controlled large portions of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.  It was reported to have had access to large amounts of money from a network of fake charities and donations.

Prabhakaran remained a secretive figure throughout his life, often moving between hideouts to avoid being captured or assassinated.

He rejected a deal that would have given the rebels broad autonomy over northern and eastern Sri Lanka, but not full independence.  Prabhakaran held out for a separate Tamil state.

After the latest attempt at peace talks broke down in 2006, the Sri Lankan army launched a huge offensive against the Tamil Tiger strongholds, eventually capturing large areas of what had been rebel-held territory. 

Some information for this report was provided by AP.