A feared militia along Sri Lanka's volatile eastern coast has abducted hundreds of men and boys -- some as young as 12 -- and is training them for combat in camps operated with the government's consent, witnesses and officials said.
The so-called K-faction takes its forced recruits to rudimentary thatched-roofed bases near army compounds where they are used as laborers or taught to use weapons, witnesses, family members and aid workers told reporters in recent interviews.
Named for its commander, who goes by the nom de guerre "Karuna," the paramilitaries -- a breakaway faction of Sri Lanka's main Tamil Tiger rebel movement -- have added a new factor to Sri Lanka's civil war, which began in 1983 and has savaged the nation. Their existence also complicates efforts by foreign mediators to revive peace negotiations.
Renewed fighting this year has killed more than 1,000 people on this island off southern India, rendering a 2002 cease-fire essentially void.
By allowing Karuna's forces to operate, the government has gained an ally against a common enemy, said Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific bureau chief for Jane's Defence Weekly.
"The Tamil Tigers are a serious threat to the government and anything that weakens or distracts from that is advantageous to Colombo," Karniol said.
The Karuna faction split from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2004, with Karuna saying the larger group didn't defend the interests of the country's eastern Tamils. The faction has since built up a strong military presence in the island's east.
It is demanding a role in peace talks with the government and says there can be no solution without them.
Hundreds of Karuna fighters are terrorizing the district of Batticaloa, the scene of a rash of abductions that began in March, residents said.
The total number of disappearances is unclear because so many go unreported, but officials from several aid organizations estimate at least 300 people have been taken by Karuna's men this year.
"It has definitely been hundreds and it might not be all of them," said Bjorn Kjelsaas of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, established to oversee the 2002 cease-fire.
The government, for its part, denies helping the Karuna faction.
But the two forces clearly work together, many people say. Karuna faction troops, mostly dressed in civilian clothing, work alongside police and army officials at roadblocks, according to a high-ranking local official and aid workers.
A leader of the faction's political wing, E. Prethip, told reporters that the group's members are "volunteers."
"Our military does not cooperate with the Sri Lankan army, but we're not enemies either," he said, sitting in front of a bookcase filled with children's books and a recent copy of Eye Spy intelligence magazine.