Page last updated at 13:15 GMT, Wednesday, 4 April 2007 14:15 UK

A date with a renegade rebel Tiger

The BBC's Colombo correspondent Roland Buerk speaks to the reclusive Colonel Karuna - the leader of the breakaway eastern faction of the Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka

Breakaway Tamil Tiger leader Colonel Karuna
Colonel Karuna is alleged to have the backing of the military

The worst bit was when they put on the blindfolds. They were polite about it - apologetic even - it was for our safety and theirs, they said.

But it was still nerve-wracking sitting in the back of a battered old minibus, unable to see, being driven at speed over rough roads to who knew where.

We were on our way to meet Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, better known by his nom de guerre, Colonel Karuna Amman.

He was once a trusted aide of Tamil Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran - Col Karuna described himself to us as having been the second-in-command of the Tigers.

He was the leading commander in the east, and one of the rebels' most successful men on the battlefield.

So when Col Karuna left the Tigers in 2004 taking many of his fighters with him it changed the dynamic of Sri Lanka's conflict.

Government forces have since driven the rebels from much of the Eastern Province.

Col Karuna rarely gives interviews and is almost never seen in public. Security around him is tight.

When the blindfolds came off we were in a tiny, sparsely-furnished bungalow, several hours' drive from the former Tiger commander's stronghold of Batticaloa.

'Not serious'

He emerged, smiling, from a bedroom to greet us.

Col Karuna says he left the rebel movement because disproportionate numbers of cadres from the east, like him, were being sacrificed on the battlefield, while the rebels from the north controlled the organisation.

Velupillai Prabhakaran at the meeting on Monday
Mr Prabhakaran appears in public rarely

And, he said, Prabhakaran was not serious about peace negotiations with the government of Sri Lanka and the now all-but-defunct 2002 ceasefire.

"I was a member of those talks," he said.

"What we were told by him was to drag these talks out for about five years, somehow let the time pass by, meanwhile I will purchase arms and we'll be ready for the next stage of fighting.

"That was his order. I told him many times, 'Let's get a federal kind of solution. This federal settlement will bring an immediate solution for the Tamils.' But he never really accepted that," he said.

The rebels have said an investigation was underway at the time he left to find out whether he had broken their code of conduct.

There were few personal possessions in the bungalow, just a small backpack lying on a bed, and a suit bag from one of Colombo's swankier menswear shops hanging in the wardrobe.

This was clearly a temporary resting place.

He had five mobile telephones.

There have been reports, denied by the government, that Col Karuna's cadres have been helping the Sri Lankan military as they have captured areas in the east that were under Tiger control.

Aid agency workers report seeing Karuna cadres carrying weapons in government-controlled areas.

'Lost strength'

He rejected those claims, but agreed his actions had had a major impact.

"By our coming out of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), I mean by me leaving the LTTE, they have lost 70% of their fighting capacity," he said.

"The LTTE has lost its strength to fight. That's an important factor. That has been a motivation for the Sri Lankan military.

"We being together with them (the military) is not right, we have never been together with them and we will not be together with them.

"But by our leaving, their [the LTTE's] strength has been broken, and by our leaving the morale of the Sri Lankan army has been boosted, morale has been built up.

"Because of that only Sri Lankan troops were able to capture most of the areas," he said.

The other allegation that has been levelled against Col Karuna's organisation is that it has been active in recruiting child soldiers.

A report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch said hundreds of children had been abducted in the east.

A UN envoy, Allan Rock, accused elements within Sri Lanka's military of helping the Karuna faction to recruit children as soldiers.

"Definitely we have no need to recruit them because we have no need of building up a military body," Col Karuna said.

"At the moment the Sri Lanka government, all three armed forces, are fighting against the Tamil Tigers. We have no need to do so.

"At the same time I would like to tell you clearly, this is also another reason for us to come out of the LTTE.

Tamil Tiger rebels drape the body of top leader Col Ramanan killed in May
Karuna's men claim to have carried out several attacks on the Tigers

"Our eastern children had been taken to the northern fighting zone and sacrificed by Prabhakaran. We didn't accept that. Our eastern children should study, they should live in freedom," he said.

But when I pressed him saying researchers from Human Rights Watch had spoken to the relatives of some of the missing, he conceded that children might be in his camps.

"If we are receiving any accusations like that maybe there are people who had come willingly, maybe even the parents would have given the wrong information, saying that we have taken these people by force," he said.

"Definitely they can meet them and if they like, they definitely can return to their parents. At the moment we are not a military body, we are a political body so we have no need to keep fighters like that or to build up a fighting force."

Election plans

Col Karuna was wearing a suit and tie. He has literally shed his Tiger uniform to enter what he calls "the political mainstream".

His newly-formed party, the TMVP, would contest future provincial and general elections, he said.

Senior government figures have spoken of him being a possible future chief minister of the Eastern Province.

He says he has abandoned the idea of a Tamil Eelam - the Tamil homeland for which the Tigers have fought for decades - and now wants a solution to the ethnic conflict under one united Sri Lanka.

"For the economy and education we need a lot of say," he said.

"The northern districts and the eastern districts have to have a lot of powers because the northern and the eastern districts are the most affected by war.

"To build up these places we need a lot of economic power. We have a need to build up the education also, we need a lot of allocations for that as well," he said.

As we were about to leave I asked him whether he was worried about the possibility that the Tigers might try to kill him.

"I am really not looking at this as a major problem," he said.

"I am the one who protected Prabhakaran. There was a time when Prabhakaran was even facing threats from within the Tigers. While he was having major threats, and was shaking, I protected him and also made the Tigers known to the world and guided them.

"As to Prabhakaran calling me a traitor, I am really not worried. Today, that is what he is. It's because of Prabhakaran, a single man, that all these killings and violence have been taking place," he says.

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