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Sri Lanka Rebels Report High-Level Split - 2004-03-04

In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels have said their group is facing a crisis. The admission follows reports of a split in the group that has waged a two-decade struggle for a separate state.

News of a serious rift within the Tamil Tiger rebel movement was triggered by reports that a rebel commander popularly known as Mr. Karuna had split from the main force.

Mr. Karuna commands rebel troops in eastern Sri Lanka. Media reports said Mr. Karuna would lead his own faction, but abide by a two-year cease-fire with the government.

A pro-rebel website initially denied there was a split in the rebel movement. But following a meeting with Norwegian mediators, the head of the rebels political wing, S.P. Thamilselvan said the crisis it faces is only temporary and a resolution will be reached soon.

Norwegian mediators have refused to comment on reports of a rift in the group.

Earlier, local rebel commanders in the east said Mr. Karuna had not obeyed requests by Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to send a large contingent of fighters to the island's north. They said Mr. Karuna was unhappy that most guerrilla fighters came from the east, whereas the rebel leadership is dominated by northerners.

It is the first airing of differences within a rebel group known for its iron discipline. Mr. Prabhakaran tolerates no dissension within his ranks, and anyone defying his leadership has been dealt with ruthlessly in the past.

A political analyst at the Center for Policy Alternatives, Rohan Edresinghe, says he expects the rift will be managed effectively by the rebel group also known as the LTTE. But he says the differences that have surfaced are significant.

"It is very significant when there are rumblings of dissent within the LTTE, and it will be very interesting to see whether, as usual, this is put down effectively and safely, or whether it develops into something a little bit more complicated," he said.

Commenting on the rift in the rebel group, a government spokesman G.L. Peiris told reporters there is a problem, but there is no reason to believe that the continuation of the ceasefire agreement is in doubt.

The rift could complicate efforts to negotiate peace with the rebels. A peace process began two years ago, but has been stalled due to differences between the country's president and prime minister over how much to concede to the rebels.

Sri Lanka is in the middle of campaigning for general elections on April 2. The rebels are not contesting directly, but are backing a group of Tamil parties.