Tue, Apr 13, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Tamil Tiger fighting heats up eastern Sri Lanka

RENEGADES The main faction of the rebel group regained control of a camp of a breakaway commander, while the government said it would not get involved

AP , KAJUWATTE, SRI LANKA

Tamil refugees load their belonging into a bus in Batticaloa yesterday on their way to their villages after returning from a refugee camp in eastern Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tiger rebels are preparing for a new jungle offensive against a breakaway faction.

PHOTO: AFP

Tamil Tiger rebels were setting up new defenses yesterday after regaining control of some the eastern Sri Lanka territory, including a camp that had been claimed by a breakaway rebel commander.

The violent skirmish between the two rebel factions, which is believed to have killed nearly three dozen fighters, has cast doubt on whether a two-year cease-fire between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the main rebel outfit can survive.

The northern-based Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam by yesterday had advanced about 15km into territory it had lost to renegade forces now calling themselves the Eastern Tigers, continuing past the Verugal River crossing that had been the dividing point.

The main rebel group took an eastern camp from the renegades overnight, but there was no resistance or bloodshed, army sources told reporters yesterday. It was not clear if the Eastern Tigers there had retreated or were taken hostage.

But the northern Tigers stopped short of crossing Sri Lankan army-controlled territory to move any farther toward the Eastern Tigers' headquarters to the south. That would violate the Tigers' cease-fire with the government and risk provoking a broader conflict.

The Eastern Tigers, meanwhile, consolidated their forces at their Thoppigala base -- about 55km southwest of the northern Tigers' front lines and about 35km northwest of the region's main town of Batticaloa.

The National Peace Council, an independent research center, warned yesterday that if fighting between the rebel factions was allowed to continue it could "spill over to the rest of the country."

"Recourse to violence to deal with internal dissent could potentially spiral out of control with catastrophic consequences," the council warned, and appealed to Norwegian peace brokers to intervene.

The eastern rebel commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan pulled about 6,000 troops from the main army's 15,000 forces early last month in a dispute with the northern leadership.

The main rebel group launched an offensive Friday to reclaim the territory, sparking heavy fighting and forcing thousands of civilians to flee their homes. Sri Lanka army sources told reporters that 33 people were killed in the battle.

Muralitharan said he split from the group because he believed it may be preparing to go back to war against the government.

He also said the Tigers' northern-based leadership has demanded that too many recruits from the east be deployed to the north, where he says they face discrimination from northern Tamils when competing for posts in the rebel administration.

The heavy fighting died down over the weekend, and the northern Tigers announced Sunday that thousands of Tamil residents who fled the area of Friday's fighting could return in time for this week's lunar new year celebrations.

Tamil residents, who are mostly Hindu, were to perform religious rituals today and tomorrow, marking the new year for the both the country's Hindus and its Sinhalese Buddhists.

Military officials have stressed that they want to uphold their two-year-old truce with the Tamil Tigers and do not want to be pulled into the conflict.

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