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Lankan breakaway ex-rebels vow to keep up attacks

Written by: Staff
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BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, June 29: While Sri Lanka's government and Tamil rebels teeter between war and peace, a deadly conflict is raging in the island's east, where renegade guerrillas are locked in a do-or-die battle with former comrades.

Blindfolded bodies are often found dumped by the road, hands tied behind the back, in the eastern ''shadow war,'' which rages alongside naval battles, ambushes and air strikes further north between government forces and mainstream guerrillas.

The renegades, who call themselves the TMVP, say they are not party to the fraying 2002 ceasefire between the mainstream Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels and the government.

''The ceasefire was between two sides -- the LTTE and the government,'' Prathep, a senior renegade rebel, told Reuters in the eastern town of Batticaloa late yesterday. ''To protect our own bases, we must attack them (the LTTE). It is not to destroy the ceasefire agreement or bring war to the country.'' With more than 700 people dead so far this year, mediators are desperate to restart a peace process between the government and the LTTE.

But repeated attacks on the LTTE by the ex-rebels, led by a man named Karuna, are seen making matters worse, and many diplomats suspect the military is backing them.

The government denies it, saying Karuna is an internal LTTE problem. In February, they initially promised to disarm armed groups in their territory but truce monitors say they then did nothing. The Tigers pulled out of talks and violence soared.

After years as one of their top commanders, Karuna Amman split from the LTTE in 2004. The rebels retook his eastern territory, but he has since rebuilt his forces and started the TMVP, based in the army-held town of Batticaloa.

Few in the area talk openly about the internecine Tamil fighting or the government's role in it. But many fear that unless violence is checked, the two-decade civil war that has already killed some 65,000 people will resume in earnest.

ENDING TIGER DICTATORSHIP?

''We are very afraid. Someone is gunned down but you cannot say who did it,'' rickshaw driver Thampyiaher Debadass, 48, said standing next to a lamp-post scrawled with the blood-red letters TMVP. ''You cannot blame particular groups. All are doing it.'' The TMVP says that although the Tigers claim to fight for a separate homeland for minority Tamils, rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran has turned them into a brutal dictatorship prejudiced against eastern Tamils in favour of their northern brethren.

Fighters loyal to Karuna had killed 230 Tiger fighters since 2004, Prathep said, for the loss of 57 of their own men. If the Tigers did not change and pursue peace, the TMVP would destroy them without military help.

''If there is no peace then we can bring an end to the dictatorship of Prabhakaran,'' he said in Tamil as unarmed Karuna loyalists brought cola drinks and cream cakes. ''We can, but we go step by step. We have no need of support from the military.'' But Karuna is seen to have a few hundred fighters at best against an estimated 10,000-20,000 Tigers.

The TMVP does not say how many men it has, but admits its members are based in jungle camps between government and Tiger territory.

But some residents say they are in reality close to or even part of army camps.

''Without any doubt there is government support,'' said Janes' Defence Weekly analyst Iqbal Athas. ''Karuna parted company two and a half years ago. How is he managing to maintain himself in terms of ammunition? But I don't know at what level of government they are conscious of that interaction.''

REUTERS

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