COLOMBO, Feb 26: Breakaway rebels in Sri Lanka today vowed to resist any attempt to disarm them -- defying a government pledge seen vital to avoid a return to war.
The government vowed on Thursday to ensure no armed group other than government security forces carries arms or conducts armed operations, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) wants to see the state act before new talks due in April.
But V Muralitharan, alias Colonel Karuna, who now lives in hiding and was formerly seen as shadowy Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran's deputy, told Reuters today his group refuses to lay down arms and will end a unilateral ceasefire and fight the LTTE if attacked.
''Without mincing our words we wish to tell (Prabhakaran) quite categorically that we have our resolve and moral right to hold onto our arms,'' Karuna told Reuters in a rare email interview.
''No one can impose their will on us to take them from us, which we use only for defensive purposes.
''Our people ... have entrusted us to defend them from the LTTE.
Our people will not like us to become submissive and just hand over our weapons to satisfy the LTTE brutes.'' The Tigers accuse the military of helping paramilitaries to mount attacks within their territory mainly in the island's east, and singled out Karuna's group at talks in Switzerland last week as one that they want disarmed if the truce is to keep holding.
They have warned that the government risks a return to a two-decade civil war that killed more than 64,000 people unless they stick by the terms of the ceasefire and rein in armed groups.
Karuna wants to see the government pledge to disarm applied to Tiger rebels who are blamed for carrying out a series of deadly attacks in December and January on the military in the government-held northern enclave of Jaffna.
''We are waiting to see how the sarong-clad Vanni Tigers ... who are terrorising our people and the army in the north are going to be disarmed in the Jaffna peninsula following the Geneva decision,'' Karuna said.
''Any provocation or attack by the LTTE would lead to officially ending our unilateral ceasefire.'' While Karuna's group says it is based both in military and rebel-held areas, President Mahinda Rajapakse's government says it has not come across such a group, estimated to number just a few hundred people. Analysts suspect the government is at least turning a blind eye.
Karuna split from the Tigers, disbanding many of his estimated 6,000 loyal fighters, in early 2004 after accusing the Tigers' northern leadership of discriminating against Tamils in the east.
He has since launched a political group, Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), and plans eventually to join the political mainstream. But for now, his group is focused on keeping the Tigers in check and will only disarm when they do.
''So long as the LTTE is allowed to hold onto their arms, the north and east cannot ever be transformed into democratic rule,'' Karuna said.
''We, as a politico-military movement too will ensure to use every means to change the present status quo to liberate our people if the LTTE fails to respect the wishes of our people to enter the democratic mainstream soon.''