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Friendless Karuna faces daunting task

Karuna is beginning to pay the price for launching a rebellion against Prabhakaran, reports PK Balachanddran.
PTI | By PK Balachanddran, Colombo
PUBLISHED ON APR 10, 2004 07:16 PM IST

The odds are stacked against the breakaway LTTE leader 'Colonel' Karuna, who is now engaged in a desperate rearguard action to thwart the advance of forces loyal to the outfit's Supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Karuna is beginning to pay the price for launching a rebellion against a leviathan like Prabhakaran, without adequate political, financial and military preparation.

Grim military situation

Though Karuna has 6,000 well armed cadres under this command, it is clear that he has not been able to stop Prabhakaran's men, numbering no more than 350, from crossing into his territory across the heavily defended and crocodile-infested Verugal river, in just four hours early on friday.

A land and sea commando operation by Prabhakaran's units had resulted in Karuna's losing major centers along the coastal road leading to Batticaloa town in the south. Among the places which fell within 24 hours were the Sea Tiger (LTTE navy) bases of Kathiraveli and Vaharai.
The capture of the seaboard gives Prabhakaran points for landing reinforcements in terms of men and material.

A counter attack by Karuna's top commanders, Jim Kelly Thaththa and Robert, aimed at taking Kandalady, on the coastal road, in the afternoon on Friday, failed.

By Saturday, Karuna had withdrawn down the road leading to Valaichenai, 35 kms north of Batticaloa town.

Jeyam, one of Karuna's top commanders, narrowly escaped a mine blast near Vaharai. The mine had hit a vehicle which was coming behind his.

An ex-Tamil militant leader now involved in Batticaloa politics told
Hindustan Times that the defense of the Verugal river was a fiasco because Karuna had not expected an attack of the kind Prabhakaran's commanders had worked out.

Infiltration main mode

For four to five days before the actual crossing of the river on Good
Friday, small groups of  Prabhakaran's commandoes dressed in civvies had been arriving by sea and land, using bullock carts and small boats as modes of transport. A foreign Ceasefire Monitor confirmed that the LTTE had arrived in boats. The intruders had quietly laid mines on the coastal road linking Verugal with other places in the south.

Another group stealthily positioned itself in-between two of Karuna's elite units, one led by Jim Kelly Thaththa and the other by Robert, which had been placed on the Batticalao side of the Verugal river.

As the forces loyal to Prabhakaran crossed the river in strength at night, firing mortars and other heavy infantry weapons, the infiltrators positioned between Karuna's units, struck with deadly effect. Unable to face the two-pronged assault, Karuna's cadres beat a hasty retreat. But the road had been mined and this took an additional toll.

Independent observers deny that 300 cadres of Karuna had surrendred.But
they do say that 100 to 150 have surrendered.They also say that there has not been much fighting as such. Most of the deaths have been in mine blasts, they say.

"Over 3000 families had fled from the Vaharai-Mankerni area on the coast, more out of fear of fighting than fighting itself," a resident of Batticaloa observed. If true, this is not good for Karuna's image.

Withdrawal to main base?

With the blockade south of the Verugal river having been cleared, and the coast north of Batticaloa virtually cleared by the Prabhakaran group, Karuna has no option but to take his cadres back to his main base at the Thoppigala/Meenaham/Karadiyanaru area 25 to 30 kms west of Batticaloa town, military observers feel.

This may be a safe option in view of the fact that Prabhakaran's forces
will have a problem crossing the A-11 highway which links Colombo with
Batticaloa.The road is controlled by the Sri Lankan armed forces. A clash with the latter will be a violation of the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the MOU between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. It will also draw the intervention of the foreign monitors and the international community.

But Prabhakaran is not expected to cross the road in strength or in broad day light. It is expected to be a clandestine operation with the possible connivance of the Sri Lankan forces themselves.

Karuna also faces the additional danger of infiltration from Amparai in the South. Residents of Batticaloa told Hindustan Times that Amparai might have already gone into the hands of Prabhakaran's infiltrators.

In awe of Prabhakaran

A Tamil source in Batticaloa said that, at the end of the day, the fear of Prabhakaran would prevail. "The masses and even LTTE cadres are in fear and awe of Prabhakaran and it is difficult for persons like Karuna to dispel these deep seated notions easily. Some of Karuna's fighting cadres might have surrendered out of such fear," said a senior journalist and a native of  Batticaloa.

Seasoned LTTE watchers say that Prabhakaran will not rest content without "finishing" Karuna, the most dangerous challenger to his authority within the LTTE and outside, to date.

It has been Prabhakaran's ambition to be recognized as the "sole" representative of the Tamil people, the only power among the Tamils, an invincible Supremo. He has physically liquidated every individual who had the gumption to challenge his status.

Karuna's crime was that he (1) challenged Prabhakaran's status or claim to be the "sole" representative of the Tamils (2) "betrayed" the trust reposed in him, and denigrated an organization of which he was part for decades (3) "divided" the Tamil people on regional lines only to become an independent ruler of the Eastern region of Batticaloa and Amparai (4) "damaged" the Tamils' case for a united Tamil Homeland comprising the North and the East of Sri Lanka.

Thus, Prabhakaran had no hesitation in branding Karuna a "traitor" and
declaring that he should be "rooted out of the soil."

Priority to quell rebellion

The LTTE Supremo is expected to suspend every other activity till Karuna is liquidated and his rebellion is quelled. Prabhakaran is, therefore, unlikely to start peace talks with the Sri Lankan government, for example. But this does not mean that he will go to war or break the Ceasefire Agreement with the Sri Lankan government. All it means is that he will not enagage in any negotiations or talks without first establishing his supremacy within the LTTE and outside, among the Tamil people.

Sri Lankan government's stand

The newly elected Sri Lankan government has been very cautious in regard to the Prabhakaran-Karuna conflict. "We have to be very circumspect" the Foreign Minister-to-be, Lakshman Kadirgamar told Hindustan Times.

"We are not interfering in this matter," added Defense Secretary Cyril Herath.

The new United Peoples' Freedom Allince (UPFA) government wants to start talks with the LTTE to please the peace lobby in the country as well as the international aid givers. Therefore, it does not want the LTTE to be bogged down in internal conflicts, especially fratricidal warfare which could break the CFA and drag the Sri Lankan state into an armed conflict.

Though, in one sense, Colombo is pleased with the weakening of the LTTE, it is also worried about the prospect of Prabhakaran's giving up the path of peace and going back to war out of sheer pique and frustration.

The new ruling party,UPFA, which was once very critical of the LTTE's
constitutional proposals, has now agreed to discuss those proposals. This should please Prabhakaran and he could agree to modify some of its
extremist clauses.

But bonhomie between Prabhakaran-Colombo is not good news for Karuna, who is virtually friendless today.

In a hurry to launch his rebellion, Karuna had not prepared the political ground for it either at home, in the Tamil areas, or abroad. He continues to avoid the Tamil media. There has been little or no political work to popularize his ideology of "Eastern regionalism" based on "Eastern grievances" against "Northern hegemonism". Karuna has done precious little to wean people from the concept of "Tamil unity" and "Tamil nationalism" of which Prabhakaran has been the highpoint for the last three decades.

Karuna is strapped for cash, and may soon face a severe shortage of
weaponry and ammunition also. He has virtually no support in the Tamil
Diaspora, which is mostly from the northern Tamil districts, especially
Jaffna. The LTTE's financial and procurement wizards are all from Jaffna.

Even if Karuna is able to purchase arms, he cannot transport them because the LTTE's shipping is controlled by Jaffna Tamils. He cannot land the supplies because the Batticaloa coastline is not his any more. Even the Sri Lanka navy will not help him given Colombo's policy of playing ball with Prabhakaran.

International community

Though the Tamil media and the LTTE's propagandists allege that the US and India are behind Karuna, the truth is that neither the US nor India is behind him. The US and India look upon the conflict in the LTTE as an internal matter and hope that it will be contained soon enough to enable the peace process to move forward and peace talks to begin.

Both US and India have plans to invest in the reconstruction of the Tamil areas now controlled by the LTTE, besides investing in Sri Lanka as such.

The Western countries, which are an important player in the Sri Lankan
peace process, would also like to deal with one powerful entity among the Tamils and not a multiplicity of them. For them Karuna's rebellion is a set back to the peace process.

An isolated Karuna will therefore be lucky if Prabhakaran, the Sri Lankan state and the international community, allow him to retreat to his ultimate refuge, the Thoppigala jungles, on the condition that he does not go for Prabhakaran and his group.

However, if the talks between the Sri Lankan government and Prabhakaran
fail and the peace process comes to a halt, the Sri Lankan state could
co-opt the Karuna group as an auxiliary armed group, as earlier governments had done in the case of other breakaway Tamil militant groups.

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