A powerful renegade rebel commander yesterday accused the Tamil Tigers' top leadership of dispatching "killer squads" to attack him and has ordered his forces on alert while local newspapers warned Sri Lanka may return to civil war.
The warning came a day after Tiger leaders announced that they had expelled the rebel eastern commander Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, also known as Karuna, from their ranks.
Muralitharan, however, refuses to relinquish power in his eastern Batticaloa-Ampara stronghold. Last week, he withdrew 6,000 fighters from the 15,000-strong guerrilla army in a dispute with the Tigers' top leader over troop deployment.
The schism is the biggest blow to the rebel group since it began its insurrection in 1983. The Tigers don't tolerate dissent and usually kill anyone who challenges their top commander Vellupillai Prabhakaran. The split also threatens an already fragile ceasefire between the rebels and government forces, and came ahead of key April 2 parliamentary elections.
"We have reliable information that killer squads sanctioned by the northern leadership have been sent with the intention of attacking me and my forces," Muralitharan said.
"These moves can lead to internal killing" between breakaway forces and the main guerrilla army, he said.
There was no immediate response from the top rebel leadership based in the north.
Meanwhile, senior Sri Lanka army officials said yesterday that 23 rebels had crossed from the northern border to the east two days after Muralitharan disclosed the split.
In two eastern towns, scores of civilians loyal to Muralitharan staged demonstrations yesterday in protest against northern rebel leaders.
Headless effigies of Prabhakaran and his intelligence chief were seen set ablaze.
Some students from the north who had been studying at universities in the east have returned home fearing an outbreak of faction fighting, college officials said.
"The greatest danger now is that if fighting erupts, the armed forces may be dragged into the mess," the independent Sunday Island reported. "A wrong move by a single soldier or Tiger cadre (northern or eastern) and the country may be plunged back into the depths of war."
The military officials said Muralitharan's men had stepped up their guard and were checking for infiltration from guerrillas in the north.
The army also was on alert for fighting between the two rival factions.
Muralitharan, who joined the ruthless rebel group just three months after the insurrection began, said he informed the Norwegian ambassador Hans Brattskar about possible fighting between his soldiers and the main insurgent army.
Norway has been trying to seal a permanent peace deal in this island nation, and brokered a historic ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers in February 2002. Western diplomats warned the division among the rebels could seriously jeopardize any chance for peace.
"It's a very tricky situation that can seriously affect the ceasefire and the peace process," Hagrup Haukland, deputy chief of a European team of truce monitors, said.
Top Norwegian peace broker Erik Solheim is expected on the island today to mark the two year anniversary of the truce being signed. There were no immediate plans to meet with Muralitharan during the eight-day visit, but the rebel split will figure predominantly in discussions, diplomats said.
Tigers' political chief S.P. Thamilselvan has insisted that the peace process -- stalled since April -- would not be affected.
Muralitharan has said his group will respect the existing truce until it can sign a new one. More than 65,000 people have been killed in the 20-year civil war.
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