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Civilians flee after rebel clashes in Lanka

Officials have said that the death toll in the worst fighting between LTTE factions since the island's two-year truce began, may triple.
PTI | By Lindsay Beck (Reuters), Colombo
UPDATED ON APR 10, 2004 07:16 PM IST

Sri Lanka's east was calm on Saturday, a day after clashes between rival Tamil Tiger factions, but officials said the death toll in the worst fighting since the island's two-year truce began could be triple initial reports.

Thousands of frightened civilians fled rebel-held areas and spent the night in schools under army watch to escape the violence that the Government said was a violation of the February 2002 ceasefire that halted the killing in the island's 20-year civil war.

"There was no fighting overnight. But thousands of civilians crossed into Government-controlled areas, and there are about 350 children under the age of five," said military spokesman Colonel Sumedha Perera.

Reports on Friday said eight fighters and an ambulance driver had died in the clashes, but a spokesman for breakaway eastern commander Karuna said there were 10 dead on their side and officials said the main Tiger group could have lost 15-20.

"That party launched the attack," Karuna's spokesman, Varathan, said referring to the northern-based Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"We have recovered 10 dead bodies, but we have no idea of the casualties on their side. We are re-organising our teams," he said.

Military sources said Karuna's group had retreated south of a major east-west road controlled by the Government leaving the northern troops on the other side -- a worry for the army, which does not want to get caught up in the conflict.

The main LTTE group does not take its wounded to hospitals in Government areas, so officials said there was no firm estimate as to the number of casualties, but from the types of heavy weapons fire exchanged they could be high.

TRUCE VIOLATION

A Defence Ministry statement said only that there had been "several casualties" and added that, although the fighting had not drawn in Government forces, it considered the clashes to be a violation of the Norwegian-brokered truce.

"It is intended to inform the Norwegian facilitators to convey to the LTTE that this is a violation of the ceasefire agreement and the Government expects to take up this issue with the LTTE leadership," the statement said.

The defence secretary said the president would meet the Norwegian ambassador on Saturday to discuss a situation that complicates her newly-elected Government's efforts to revive peace talks, on hold now since April 2003.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga told US Secretary of State Colin Powell she would move to restart talks after next week's local New Year holidays and would not let the split in the Tigers stand in the way, but it is difficult to see how that would work in practice.

The Tigers consider themselves the sole representatives of the Tamil people and, when Karuna -- the nom de guerre for eastern rebel commander V Muralitharan -- broke from the group in early March, it was a major blow to their internal discipline.

The Tigers, who have been fighting for a separate Tamil state, are known to brook no dissent and have vowed to "get rid of Karuna from our soil".

Kumaratunga, an arch-foe of the Tigers whom they tried to kill in a 1999 suicide bomb attack, was expected to retain the defence portfolio when the island's new cabinet is sworn in later on Saturday.

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