Civil war fears reignite as rival Tigers factions clash in Sri Lanka

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The Independent Online

Heavy fighting broke out in eastern Sri Lanka yesterday - the first serious violence since the government and the Tamil Tigers agreed a ceasefire two years ago.

Heavy fighting broke out in eastern Sri Lanka yesterday - the first serious violence since the government and the Tamil Tigers agreed a ceasefire two years ago.

This time the fighting was not between the government and the rebels but two rival Tigers factions. All the same, there were immediate fears that government forces could be sucked in, reigniting the civil war that plagued the country for two decades and claimed 65,000 lives.

Thousands of civilians were reported to be fleeing the scene of the fighting yesterday, as the two rebel factions exchanged small arms and mortar fire across the Varugal river. At least nine people were killed, and nine injured, rebel sources said. There were also reports that child soldiers were captured.

The fighting came a week after voters threw out the government that had negotiated a truce with the rebels, voting in a party which is much more hardline on negotiations. The Tigers warned that they would resume their war if demands for autonomy in the Tamil-dominated north were not met.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelamhave been fighting since 1983, accusing Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority of discrimination against the Tamil minority. They signed a ceasefire with the government in February 2002. Peace talks broke down a year later but the ceasefire held.

The Tigers were long considered one of the world's most unified and disciplined insurgent movements, but in their first significant split, a powerful commander broke away last month. Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, also known by his nom de guerre Colonel Karuna, took with him 6,000 of the group's 15,000 fighters. The Tigers vowed to "get rid of Karuna from our soil". Yesterday it seemed they had begun to go through with their threat.

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