When did Karuna leave Prabhakaran

In Sri Lanka, a break in the Tamil rebel leadership complicates the stalled peace process

DELHItaz ■ The Tamil rebel organization “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” (LTTE) dismissed its regional commander in eastern Sri Lanka over the weekend for “treasonous activity against the Tamil people”. V. Muralithatan, better known by his alias "Colonel Karuna", had apparently refused to move 1,000 of his roughly 6,000 fighters to the north. The LTTE force is estimated at 15,000 men and women.

The falling out with the central leadership came after Karuna had sent a letter to guerrilla chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran, in which he wanted to put his Prabhakaran's region under direct control instead of the more than two dozen LTTE department heads: "Let us work directly under you. We are not against you, we are not leaving you. "

That this assurance was not meant literally became apparent last Thursday when it became known that Karuna had offered the Sri Lankan government and Norwegian brokers to negotiate a separate ceasefire agreement.

It is not known whether this development is just the outbreak of a long simmering crisis. However, it is known that sub-ethnic tensions exist between the Tamils ​​of the north and the east, based on the widespread belief in the east and in the central mountain region that the Jaffna Tamils ​​want to dominate those from other regions.

The LTTE leadership quickly ordered all military and political officers under Karuna to Kilinocchi, the provisional rebel headquarters. At a meeting of the Central Committee on Saturday, Karuna was charged with “planning a secession from the liberation organization”. His military deputy, Ramesh, was appointed to succeed him. At a subsequent press conference, at which all officers from Karunas region competed, the head of the political wing, S. P. Tamilchelvam, said that the peace process would not be affected by this betrayal.

Newspapers in Colombo quoted army sources on Sunday saying that thousands of Karuna militants had left their posts in the cities of Batticaloa and Amparai and retired to the forests.

A rebellion in the LTTE leadership is an almost unheard of occurrence. The success of the Tamil Tigers is attributed by observers to the quasi-Stalinist control of Prabhakaran, who cold-bloodedly eliminated his potential rivals within the group as well as comrades-in-arms from other Tamil organizations.

Karuna, whose rank puts him at the top of the cadre, is Prabhakaran's oldest comrade in arms and the only one who has not lost his post as regional commander in 17 years. He is not inferior to his boss in ruthlessness and enjoys the reputation of a brilliant strategist. The conquest of the most important bridgehead of the Sri Lankan army at the "Elephant Pass" in April 2000 is attributed to him.

Karuna was also part of the LTTE delegation in the peace negotiations. The peace process, which has been lurching for a long time, is thus becoming even more uncertain. The LTTE had not taken part in the talks since April 2003, and in November the government argued over the negotiating strategy. This was followed by the dismissal of the government by President Kumaratunga and the call for new elections.

But so far the armistice has held. The head of the Norwegian observation mission traveled to Kilinocchi on Friday to assure the LTTE that the Colombo government will not derive any military benefit from the internal rift. In Colombo, a military spokesman denied Karuna's request for a separate ceasefire and military protection against Prabhakaran's revenge. BERNARD IMHASLY