Tamil rebel crisis deepens: leaders dismiss breakaway commander, but he refuses to relinquish control
Sat March 6, 2004 10:18 EST .
SHIMALI SENANAYAKE - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) A split in Sri Lanka - 's Tamil Tiger rebels widened Saturday when guerrilla leaders dismissed a powerful commander who had earlier broken away from the main insurgent army but he refused to relinquish control of his 6,000 troops.
The Tigers' eastern commander, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, also known as Karuna, pulled his fighters away from the 15,000-strong army in an unprecedented dispute with the northern-based top leader over his demands that the eastern region send recruits to the north.
The schism is the biggest blow to the rebel group since it began its insurrection in 1983, and the guerrillas usually kill anyone who dissents or challenges their leadership. It is also a major threat to an already highly fragile cease-fire between the rebels and government forces.
``It's a very tricky situation that can seriously affect the cease-fire and the peace process,'' Hagrup Haukland, deputy chief of a European team of truce monitors, told The Associated Press.
One of Muralitharan's senior officers quoted the commander as saying Saturday that he did not think the split would lead to fighting between the two factions, but if the northern group attacks the east, then ``we are fully able to counter any challenges.''
A senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said government forces in the north and east had been put on alert.
He said Muralitharan's men had also stepped up their guard and were checking for Tiger infiltration from the north.
A few hours earlier at a press conference in Kilinochchi, a northern rebel town, the Tigers' political chief S.P. Thamilselvan warned that ``the action of a single individual running contrary to the aspirations of the Tamil people cannot be tolerated whatever the consequences may be.''
``Karuna has been discharged from the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam organization and has been relieved of all responsibility,'' Thamilselvan said, calling the act of dissension ``traitorous.''
He said Muralitharan would be replaced by his deputy, Ramesh, who like many Tamil insurgents uses only one name. Ramesh as well as other officers have fled from the east to the north.
``It was a decision ... which has not been accepted by his deputies, cadres and the people as a whole,'' Ramesh told reporters at the news conference.
But Muralitharan refused to step aside.
``I will not give up my command,'' one of Muralitharan's top officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, quoted his boss as saying. ``It's very ridiculous to make a statement that I am expelled, when it was we who first decided to break away and have our own administration.''
The split in rebel ranks a month before April 2 parliamentary elections mirrors a split within the government. President Chandrika Kumaratunga's power struggle with her political rival Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has threatened to derail efforts to end the 20-year civil war.
The rebel schism was expected to make things worse.
In an exclusive interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Muralitharan said his grievances with top rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran were about sending more cadres from the east to the north and allegations of favoritism. He also complained of unauthorized assassinations and attacks in his area.
Ramesh rejected the allegations.
It was not immediately known what measures the northern leadership will take to institute Ramesh in Muralitharan's placea move that could lead to deadly fighting between the two factions.
Muralitharan's official said hundreds of parents from the east would go to the north to ask for their children back, where at least 600 had been stationed on the front lines.
Muralitharan said his group will respect the existing truce until it can sign a new one and blamed northern leaders for a spate of recent political killings in his area.
Prabhakaran signed a February 2002 cease-fire with Wickremesinghe, halting the war that killed nearly 65,000 people.
``A single individual's lapse and the disciplinary action in removing him from the organization, will definitely not affect the peace process in anyway,'' Thamilselvan said.
Trained in India, Muralitharan has led some of the Tigers' toughest battles most significant was an 18-month battle in 1997-1998 where the Tigers defended a key highway that cost more than 3,500 lives and was dubbed the ``highway of death.''
Published: Sat Mar 6 18:48:00 EST 2004