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SRI LANKA: Civilians Caught in Tamil Militant Factional Rivalry

Amantha Perera

BATTICALOA , Jul 21 2006 (IPS) - The large sign alongside the Batticaloa lagoon in eastern Sri Lanka reads "Vanakam (Welcome) TMVP" in bold, red Tamil letters, proclaiming that the writ of the formidable Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) does not run in these parts.

It also indicates how much the Tamileelam Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (Tamil Freedom Panthers) or TMVP has grown over the last two years, under the leadership of the LTTE renegade, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, alias Col. Karuna.

The TMVP has become a serious enough irritation for the LTTE to link resumption of stalled peace talks with the government to the Sri Lankan army stopping its alleged support for Col. Karuna. &#39&#39Paramilitary groups must be disarmed so as to ensure cessation of their activities in the Tamil Homeland by removing them from the north-east," Tiger political head S. P. Tamilselvan said in a letter to President Mahinda Rajapakse earlier this month.

Col. Karuna broke ranks with the Tigers in early 2004 and, soon afterwards, defected to government-controlled areas from where his group has been launching attacks on the LTTE cadres and camps. Several high-ranking Tigers and Karuna loyalists have died in the internecine warfare.

More importantly, the Norwegian-facilitated ceasefire that temporarily halted two decades of Tamil secessionist violence, in which more than 65,000 people died, began to come under strain. In the last two years, the government and LTTE representatives have met only once – in Geneva in January where the Karuna issue dominated talks.

While the government steadfastly denies supporting the Karuna faction, the all-Scandianvian Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) has said, in reports submitted to both the government and the LTTE, that armed Karuna loyalists have been spotted in government-controlled areas in the east.

"Sighting of armed civilians claiming to represent Karuna is often reported to SLMM and on the 28th of March SLMM monitors encountered 10 – 15 armed men in civilian clothes operating in Valaichchenai (in Batticaloa) , who told SLMM that they belong to the Karuna faction. SLMM district office in Batticaloa has also been contacted by individuals claiming to be Karuna members,&#39&#39 the group said in a report submitted at the Geneva talks.

That report has caused Colombo much embarrassment and there were quick and vehement official denials of any link between the Sri Lankan establishment and Karuna&#39s group.

Karuna himself insists that his cadres operate in areas that lie between government areas and Tiger-held areas and denies that he has government backing. "Utter nonsense! How does the SLMM identify our cadres?&#39&#39

But the TMVP has opened an office in Batticaloa town and its spokesman T. Thuyavan says that the group plans to open others in the capital of Colombo, and also in the eastern harbour town of Trincomalee and in Amapara, south of Batticaloa.

In contrast, existing Tiger political offices in government-controlled areas are now rapidly closing down. The LTTE&#39s Batticaloa office has came under attack on several occasions and the Tigers have blamed these on the Karuna group.

Along with rivalry on the political front, skirmishes and attacks have continued. The TMVP said that it launched an attack on a Tiger camp in the Trincomalee district on Jul. 18 night and the following morning. "About eight LTTE cadres were killed. Four other cadres were said to have been killed in a claymore mine attack at the same place the next morning. The attacks were carried out by the TMVP," Thuyavan said.

Angry Tiger officials in the area dismissed the claim as propaganda and said that only one of their men had been killed. "Our camps are always fortified and ready for war or peace. We have reason to strengthen ourselves," they said, indicating that the job of fighting the army was still left to the LTTE rather than the TMVP.

As the rivalry rages on, civilians find themselves caught in a bind. Whenever there is a clash they flee their homes in large numbers. Recently, close to 100 families arrived at the army controlled areas in Mankerni, north of Batticaloa, alleging that the Tigers were forcibly imparting military training and recruiting children.

Civilians speak of heavily armed and masked men barging into their homes and demanding of terrified families that they disclose which of the two groups they were loyal to – the LTTE or the TMVP. Summary shootings have been reported.

Traders and business people complain privately that in some areas the LTTE, the army and the TMVP are taking turns to collecting taxes. No one wants to be quoted for fear of brutal reprisals from one or the other armed group.

As both factions step up their drive to forcibly recruit able-bodied men, women and children to their side, high tension prevails. So much so that in several areas, which were affected by the December 2004 tsunami, reconstruction work has come to a standstill.

Batticaloa has also been acquiring a reputation for child-soldier recruitments and the United Nations Children&#39s Fund (UNICEF) has alleged that both the Tigers and the Karuna group are guilty.

While both have denied these charges, it is a common sight to see parents accompanying their children to school and back to prevent attempts at kidnapping by either group.

With the Tigers unlikely to back down on their demand that the Karuna group be disarmed, the situation has reached a deadlock. The Tigers have now started laying blame on the military for any attacks on their cadres – both to deny credit to the TMVP and to emphasise links between its rival group and the establishment. They have also retaliated by attacking the army in the north where it is dominant.

For his part, Karuna has vowed not to give up arms. When he broke ranks he commanded 6,000 military cadres in the east. He says that he has the support of bulk of them but has declined to give exact figures. Analysts believe that he has at least 500 armed cadres operating in the east. His group has also been receiving official attention that has thus far been set aside exclusively for the Tigers.

Recently, the TMVP held discussions with UNICEF officials on allegations that it was recruiting children. While the UN agency said it was acting on complaints, including those made by the SLMM, the breakaway group regarded the dialogue as yet another indication of international recognition and legitimacy.

&#39&#39The next meeting will be held very soon in the Meenagam office shortly. We will have regular meetings,&#39&#39 TMVP political head Pradeep said.

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