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Sri Lanka: Thousands of Civilians Flee Fighting Between Tamil Tiger Factions - 2004-04-10

Tensions are high in Sri Lanka in the wake of fighting that has erupted between rival factions of the Tamil Tiger rebels. Thousands of civilians have fled their homes to escape clashes that are endangering the country's efforts to end a long-running civil war.

Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross say thousands of civilians in the east took shelter in school buildings or fled to safer areas, after a day of fierce clashes between rival Tamil Tiger rebel groups.

The Red Cross took advantage of a lull in the fighting on Saturday to hand out relief supplies.

Fighting began Friday between the main Tamil Tiger group and a rebel commander in the east who broke away from the main group last month.

The main rebel leadership appears to have made some headway in retaking territory controlled by the breakaway commander, V. Muralitharan, who is also known as Karuna.

Sri Lankan military officials say sounds of gunfire were heard Saturday from areas where the northern rebels are consolidating their positions.

They say Karuna has retreated south to a jungle area in Batticaloa district, about 220 kilometers east of Colombo. He is reported to be setting up new defenses there.

An official in President Chandrika Kumaratunga's office says military commanders have been ordered to help evacuate casualties, but not to intervene in the rebel conflict.

The Defense Ministry says the fighting is a violation of a truce signed two years ago between the government and the Tamil Tigers. The truce has halted armed conflict between the rebels and the military.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a political analyst with Colombo's Center of Policy Alternatives, says concern remains high that the military could be drawn in if the fighting spreads.

"The danger is of course is others intervening and trying to get political and military capital out of it, which will then have an impact on the ceasefire," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. "That's the worst possible case scenario."

The Tamil rebels fought for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority for nearly two decades, but have agreed to negotiate for autonomy instead of independence.

A new government elected last week was expected to restart stalled negotiations with the rebels. But analysts say the internal rebel conflict has set back chances of an early resumption of the peace process.