Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers threatened yesterday to kill a breakaway leader following a split that jeopardizes the strength of the rebel group and the island's peace process.
The first open warning against eastern leader Karuna was accompanied by a similar threat to any fighters who continued to support him in a large area of the east coast of Sri Lanka.
"To safeguard our nation and our people, it has been decided to get rid of Karuna from our soil," the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said on its official www.lttepeacesecretariat.com Web site.
The warning is unlikely to mean just expelling Karuna -- the nom de guerre of the eastern commander, V. Muralitharan -- from rebel-controlled areas, as the Tigers have a history of showing no tolerance to internal challenges.
The rebels have been fighting for a separate state in the north and east for two decades and the split with Karuna is the worst internal threat to the LTTE -- known for its strict discipline -- in that time.
It has overshadowed a parliamentary campaign that is being fought largely over who is best to lead the government's peace negotiations, President Chandrika Kumaratunga or her rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The Tigers said the more than 6,000 cadres supporting Karuna should abandon him and return to their families.
"If any of the cadres decide to arm in favour of Karuna, he/she would be deemed responsible for the consequences. The demise of such a cadre will not be with the honour of a martyr," the LTTE said.
Karuna's eastern faction was not available for comment.
Although Sri Lankan military officials say there is no sign the two sides are getting ready to fight, there have been some movements of rebel troops.
An internal war could destroy the organization, analysts in Colombo say.
The statement repeated accusations that Karuna broke from the group to avoid facing charges of "immoral conduct, fraudulent financial transactions and arbitrary assassinations."
Karuna says he was forced to break away because Tamils in the east were being mistreated by northern Tamils, who make up the majority of the LTTE leadership, including top leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Kumaratunga and Wickreme-singhe have said they want to restart stalled peace talks if their parties win the April 2 poll, but want to wait and see what happens in the LTTE before commenting on how the split would affect the talks.
The president, who accuses Wickremesinghe of giving away too much to win peace with the rebels, has also said she would honor a cease-fire which the prime minister had signed with the rebels more than two years ago.