Norway is launching a new bid to keep alive Sri Lanka's peace process, threatened by a potentially explosive split in the ranks of the rebel Tamil Tigers and a snap parliamentary election triggered by infighting between the president and prime minister.
Norwegian peace broker Erik Solheim arrival yesterday was scheduled to coincide roughly with the two-year anniversary of the landmark ceasefire signed between the Tigers and the government in February 2002.
But the unprecedented rebel rift has dealt the biggest test to the ceasefire so far, and one of the biggest blows to the Tigers since they began their insurrection in 1983. The Tigers don't tolerate dissent and usually kill anyone who challenges top commander Vellupillai Prabhakaran.
Eastern rebel commander Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, also known as Karuna, withdrew his 6,000 fighters from the 15,000-strong guerrilla army last week in a dispute with northern-based Prabhakaran over troop deployment.
He now says he is the target of an assassination operation.
The rebel split comes a month before parliamentary elections and mirrors deep divisions within the government.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga' and Prime Minister Wickre-mesinghe are locked in a power struggle that also threatens to derail efforts to end the 20-year civil war.
Muralitharan said too many eastern-based rebels were being redeployed to the north, and that northern-based Tamils were favored in the Tiger administration.
A group of Tamil residents in the east led by the area's Roman Catholic bishop, the Reverend Kingsley Swampillai, launched a bid to settle the rebel dispute.
The seven-member group, including the bishop, two priests and local businessmen and politicians, departed yesterday for the north to discuss reconciliation, a Catholic priest, the Reverend A.E. Devadason said.
"People are in a confused situation. Most people feel: `Why this division at this moment?,' especially when elections are around," he said.
Muralitharan sought last Thursday to negotiate his own ceasefire accord, a notion rejected by the government on Friday. On Saturday, the Tigers' leadership announced that Muralitharan was expelled, and the renegade warlord said on Sunday that his forces were on alert for attacks.
"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 by telephone.
"These moves can lead to internal killing" between breakaway forces and the main guerrilla army, he said.
There were no immediate plans for Solheim to meet with Muralitharan during the envoy's eight-day visit, but the rebel split would figure predominantly in his discussions, diplomats said.