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Fighting Between Tamil Rebel Factions May End Soon, say Sri Lankan Officials - 2004-04-12

Military officials in Sri Lanka say fighting between two rival Tamil rebel factions appears to have come to an end, after thousands of troops from the renegade eastern division have given up and gone home. The unprecedented rift in the guerrilla group has raised concerns about the country's two-year-old cease-fire.

Officials say about 2,000 fighters from a breakaway faction of the Tamil Tigers in eastern Sri Lanka have laid down their weapons in the face of an offensive by the rebel's northern division. Government observers say the fighters have simply dispersed, apparently heading home to their villages.

Fighting erupted between the Tamil Tigers' northern and eastern divisions Friday, weeks after an unprecedented split within the rebel movement, which is known for crushing dissent. Since then, Sri Lankan military officials say, thousands of civilians have fled the areas near the eastern city of Batticaloa, and dozens of rebels have been killed.

The rift began when a Tamil commander known as Karuna, based in eastern Sri Lanka, accused the Tigers' top leaders of favoring the rebels in the north. Officials estimate 6,000 soldiers followed Commander Karuna.

So far, no senior officials loyal to Commander Karuna have confirmed that fighting has ended, or that any of his forces have left the frontline.

There were fears in the capital, Colombo, that the fighting might spill into territory controlled by the government, which signed a cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers two years ago. Peace advocate Jehan Perera, from the National Peace Council, says the government should mediate between the rebel factions.

"From an ethical point of view, the government of Sri Lanka should play [a] peacekeeper role," he said. "It should be a role which is so clearly in the interests of the Tamil people and in the interests of averting bloodshed that no one can really misunderstand this role."

The cease-fire halted the rebels' 20 year separatist campaign on behalf of Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority. Negotiations to permanently end the war have stalled during the past year. More than 60,000 people died in the conflict.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga is working to form a coalition, following her alliance's victory in the April 2 parliamentary election. She installed a new cabinet Saturday, keeping for herself the defense portfolio, considered key to renewing peace talks with the rebels.

The president called the parliamentary election early, following months of deadlock with the former prime minister over the peace process. She had accused the prime minister of being too soft on the Tamil rebels.