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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Apprentice Receptionist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join this w...

Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Seasonal Placement

£12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced Hotel Receptionists...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Recruitment Genius: Project / Account Manager and IT Support

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This world leader in Online Pro...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn