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Tamil Tiger Rebels Vow to Get Rid of Commander who Led Split in Movement - 2004-03-26

Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka have vowed to get rid of a commander who led an unprecedented split in the movement. The rift among the rebels could make it more difficult to get a stalled peace process back on track.

The Tamil Tigers gave their first open warning to the renegade commander, popularly known as Karuna, by stating on their Web site that: "to safeguard our nation and our people, it has been decided to get rid of Karuna from our soil."

The Tigers told fighters supporting Karuna to abandon him, and return to their families. They warned that rebels siding with him would be "responsible for the consequences."

Karuna, whose real name is V. Muralitharan, commands about six-thousand fighters in the east, or about a third of the rebel force. He broke away from the main rebel group early this month, complaining that the northern-based leadership was sidelining the eastern leaders.

Several political analysts interpreted the latest rebel statement as a warning that they will try to assassinate the renegade commander. In the past, the rebels have tolerated no dissension in their ranks, and killed those who broke away from the leadership.

Jehan Perera, a political analyst with Colombo's National Peace Council, says the rebels are also trying to isolate Karuna from the civilian Tamil population in the east.

"Their strategy is to erode the political base that he has, by showing that they are very firmly opposed to him, that there is not going to be any dealing with him," he said. "I think they hope to, therefore, send people a message that there is no possibility of any rapprochement with him, and make it look as if he is on his own."

The split among the rebels has raised fears that fighting could erupt between the rival factions, and the Sri Lankan army has been placed on alert.

Sri Lankan military officials say there are no immediate signs that the two sides are getting ready to fight, but there has been some movement of rebel troops.

So far, both the factions have downplayed fears that they could get involved in an internal armed conflict.

The Tigers fought for a separate homeland for the country's Tamil minority for two decades. During the past two years, rebel leaders have backed away from that demand, and, instead, have called for greater autonomy.

Both sides also say they are committed to a cease-fire that has been in place for more than two years. But some analysts say the split has complicated efforts to revive the peace process, which stalled last year, due to differences among the political leadership on how much to concede to the rebels.