Tamil Tigers issue death warrant for former leader

Two years ago the Tamil Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran, summoned the world's journalists to his hideout in the steaming jungle of the Wanni in northern Sri Lanka for the first press conference in his long and bloody career as a guerrilla leader.

Sitting beside him on the podium in the big tent was the man Tamils know as "Karuna Amman" - "Uncle Karuna" - one of Prabhakaran's oldest comrades, his one-time bodyguard who was promoted in 1987 to commander of the Tigers in the eastern region of Batticaloa, where he is believed to control between 4,000 and 6,000 battle-hardened fighters.

But yesterday the Tigers' official website branded Uncle Karuna - real name Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan - a traitor, and said that, "To safeguard our nation and our people, it has been decided to get rid of Karuna from our soil." Observers of the Tigers said the statement amounted to a clear decision by Prabhakaran to have his old comrade killed, as he has eliminated many troublesome colleagues and allies in the past. Air Marshal Harry Goonetilleke, a former chief of Sri Lanka's air force, told Associated Press in Colombo: "In their language it is a death warrant."

The announcement, which came as no surprise to Karuna's spokesman, could spark a civil war within the civil war. Karuna's forces and those loyal to Prabhakaran and the northern high command are said to be massing on either side of the Verugal river that divides Karuna's district from Trincomalee to the north.

Whether or not it leads to large-scale bloodshed, the stand-off makes the island's peace process, already mired in political trouble on the majority Sinhalese side, even less likely to produce a lasting peace agreement in the near future. It is one more complicating element, along with the snap general election called for 2 April, which darkens peace hopes in a country that has been at war for more than 20 years, with more than 60,000 deaths.

Karuna, who announced his secession from the Tigers - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - weeks ago, has also said that he was no longer bound by the ceasefire agreement that had been in force for more than two years.

His split from Prabhakaran does not, however, reflect a difference of opinion about the merits of peace. Observers say it is rather the result of Karuna's bruised ego. One of the guerrilla army's most exalted commanders, who once risked everything to rescue Prabhakaran from the Sri Lankan army, Karuna is said to have felt increasingly snubbed and sidelined since the ceasefire.

The high command of the Tigers has always been centred on the island's Jaffna Peninsula in the far north, home to Prabhakaran and practically all the movement's other top cadres. [One reason, it is said, why Karuna was given a place on the top table at the historic press conference was to reassure him and his loyalists that Prabhakaran was according the east and its leader the importance they deserved.]

Batticaloa, Karuna's stronghold, is separated by swathes of hostile Sinhalese territory from the island's other Tamil-dominated regions, and during the long years of civil war Karuna had his fiefdom to himself. But after the ceasefire was signed, northern Tiger forces are reported to have used their new-found freedom of movement to swing into Karuna's territory, recruiting Tamil children as fighters, imposing taxes, infiltrating spies and generally trying to bring the region under the north's sway. Seeing his power erode, Karuna said enough was enough, using the Norwegian peacekeepers to deliver the message.

The highly public nature of the split, and the existence of the ceasefire, makes it harder for Prabhakaran to eliminate his troublesome subordinate in the old style with a bullet or a suicide bomber: harder, although perhaps not impossible.

But whatever the outcome, Sri Lanka's hopes for peace today look much hazier than they did on the night when Prabhakaran and Karuna faced the world's flash-guns side by side.

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