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Sri Lanka Rejects Call for Separate Truce With Breakaway Rebel Faction - 2004-03-05

The Sri Lankan government has rejected a call for a separate truce with a breakaway faction of Tamil Tiger rebels. The recent rift in the rebel group poses a new challenge to solving the country's two-decade long ethnic conflict.

Defense officials say dissident rebel leader popularly known as Karuna made the request for a separate truce with the government through military commanders.

But Defense Secretary Cyril Herath says he cannot agree to the truce request because a ceasefire deal already exists with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Media reports say Mr. Karuna has fallen out with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran due to concerns that rebels from the east are being overlooked for key positions in the Tiger's organization. This is the group's first rift in its years of rebellion.

Kethesh Loganathan, a political analyst at the Center for Policy Alternatives, says the split could raise fresh problems for the two-year cease-fire and the peace process.

"It raises issues relating to sources of authority and therefore it has very serious implications, particularly if the differences were to spill over into hostilities of an armed nature, that could itself threaten the ceasefire, and drag the security forces into a very dangerous situation," he said.

Mr. Herath says both factions in the LTTE say they will abide by the truce with the government.

But military officials are worried that fighting may erupt in the north and the east if differences are not resolved. Mr. Karuna commands rebel fighters in the east, whereas Mr. Prabhakaran is the leader in the north.

Government troops in the north and east have been ordered to increase their guard.

The main Tamil Tiger group is playing down the dispute, saying it will be resolved very soon.

The rift is the toughest challenge yet to the secretive guerrilla group that has remained under the tight control of Mr. Prabhakaran so far, and brooked no dissidence.

It is also the biggest challenge to Sri Lanka's peace process.

Negotiations are already bogged down due to differences between the country's key political leaders. Analysts say the split within the rebel ranks will make it more difficult for Norwegian mediators, who helped broker the island's cease fire, to get talks back on track.

The guerrillas began an armed struggle in 1983 for a separate homeland for the minority Tamils, but have agreed to end the conflict if Tamil-dominated areas are given more autonomy.