- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s peace talks are officially held up due to differences over an agenda, but officials and diplomats involved in the process say the unprecedented split among the rebels could be the real reason.

Peace broker Norway has described the escalation of violence following a schism in the Tamil Tiger movement as the most dangerous since a cease-fire went into effect in February 2002.

Government and rebel officials say that, although they disagree on the sequence and content of the talks, the agenda is easier to sort out than the issue of a renegade commander who is said to receive covert help from the military.

Regional Tiger commander V. Muralitharan, better known as Karuna, led a split in March. Faced with an onslaught by the rebel leadership five weeks later, he went underground after disbanding 5,000 to 6,000 fighters under him in the island’s troubled eastern province.

“The Tigers are now militarily weaker in the east after Karuna’s split,” a Western diplomat said. “They are not likely to come for talks until they re-establish total control over the area.”

Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran turned up at a parade of his rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) unit in the rebel-held Wanni region last week and spoke about his war machine, the pro-rebel Tamilnet Web site reported.

“The Liberation Tigers were the first to use rocket-propelled grenade launchers in the island,” Tamilnet quoted Mr. Prabhakaran as saying. “Our RPG units were very successful in fighting enemy armor.”

Mr. Prabhakaran was seen wearing military fatigues and a customary cyanide capsule around his neck to commit suicide in case he falls into the hands of government forces.

The Tigers have been fighting for three decades to establish a separate homeland for the Tamil minority. A major bone of contention has been the rebels’ proposal last year for self-rule until a final peace deal is in place.

Norwegian envoys have shuttled between the rebels and the government to secure agreement on how to address the Tiger proposal to jump-start the talks that have been held up since April 2003.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga last week backed down from her earlier refusal to discuss the Tiger proposal at risk of incurring the wrath of hard-line nationalists in her shaky coalition government.

Her key ally, the Marxist JVP, or People’s Liberation Front, also softened its stand on the rebel proposal.

But diplomats and officials involved in the peace process say the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is not likely to open negotiations with Mrs. Kumaratunga’s new government from a position of weakness.

Norway’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen, on a failed mission last month to revive talks, warned that Sri Lankans appeared to have taken peace for granted after the Oslo-brokered truce. More than 60,000 people have died in the island’s ethnic conflict.

“The cease-fire agreement is not a peace agreement. It only means that the war has been frozen,” Mr. Helgesen told reporters. “Today, a frozen war is melting at the edges. It is not a good situation.”

He said the security situation, particularly in the island’s east, was not helpful to bridging the gap between the two sides.

At least five persons were killed in clashes linked to the LTTE’s split last week in the east. Gunning down of rival rebels has almost become a routine.

Tigers have accused the military intelligence of supporting Mr. Karuna in hit-and-run attacks against rebels affiliated with the northern-based leadership.

Sri Lanka’s head of the directorate of military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Kapila Hendavitharan, sought early retirement last week, but it was not clear if the move was linked to reputed support to Mr. Karuna.

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