Renegade leader on the run as Tigers suppress rebel faction

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The Independent Online

A renegade Tamil Tiger rebel leader was on the run yesterday after days of factional fightingleft dozens dead and threatened Sri Lanka's fragile ceasefire.

A renegade Tamil Tiger rebel leader was on the run yesterday after days of factional fightingleft dozens dead and threatened Sri Lanka's fragile ceasefire.

Military sources said about 500 members of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan's breakaway group fled their positionsovernight, hours after about 2,000 of their comrades surrendered their posts in eastern Sri Lanka, where the renegade rebels have clashed with mainstream Tigers since Friday.

Agnes Bragadottir, of the European ceasefire monitoring team, said the mainstream Tigers were in "full control of the eastern districts".

The Tigers said that they had failed to capture Muralitharan, who is also known by his nom de guerre Colonel Karuna, or any of his accomplices. The TamilNet website quoted an unnamed rebel source as saying that the Tigers' armory in the area was found intact except for a heavy mortar and some rifles. The report alleged that Muralitharan had abandoned his main base in Thoppigala, about 120km (75 miles) north of Colombo.

General Lionel Balagalle, Sri Lanka's military chief, said that he would give protection to Muralitharan. "We don't know where he is, but if he asks for protection, we can give him [it]," he said.

The government has given protection to Tiger deserters in the past. "This has been our policy and we will stick to it," General Balagalle said. Unicef said that it had gained the release of nearly 150 former child soldiers from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Vakkarai, near where the fighting had taken place.

Ted Chaiban, Unicef's representative in Sri Lanka, said:"For too long these children have had to live as soldiers and have been denied the rights of other children to learn, play and live in a family environment."

Muralitharan split with the mainstream Tigers early last month in a dispute over regional rivalry and political strategy, taking 6,000 of the group's 15,000 fighters and claiming control of a portion of eastern Sri Lanka.

Northern-based rebels launched an offensive on Friday that pushed the eastern Tigers from their front line along the Verugal river, north of Thoppigala, in heavy fighting that eased by Sunday.

The fighting between Tamil militants - near territory controlled by the Sinhalese-dominated government - has risked drawing in the Sri Lankan army and reigniting civil war.

Separatist Tigers started fighting the government in 1983 in a war that was halted by a February 2002 ceasefire, after claiming nearly 65,000 lives.

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