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Page last updated at 18:40 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 19:40 UK

Questions over renegade Tamil Tiger

Former Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger rebel Col Karuna has just completed a prison sentence in the UK and is now in an immigration detention centre. The BBC's Frances Harrison looks at his past and what might happen to him next.

Col Karuna in 2004
Col Karuna shortly after splitting from the Tamil Tigers
Col Karuna was once known as the favourite of the reclusive Tamil Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

He was one of his bodyguards having joined the rebels in their early days when he was aged 17.

He rose to become commander of rebel territory in eastern Sri Lanka and effectively number two in the Tiger military organisation.

He was widely recognised within the Tigers for his battlefield achievements. He was credited with several rebel victories including the recapture from the army of the northern town of Kilinochchi.

Split questions

But then in 2004 Col Karuna defected and fought alongside government forces. That left the Tamil Tiger leadership with very serious security concerns because he had intimate knowledge of their hideouts, strategy and methods.

Col Karuna's split from the Tamil Tigers was not clear cut and simple.

Colonel Karuna
Karuna fought key battles in the north

According to the well informed Tamil commentator, Sivaram, who has since been assassinated, Col Karuna wanted a more direct relationship with the rebel leader in the north of Sri Lanka. He did not want to deal with the rest of the rebel administration.

He was summoned to rebel headquarters in the north to answer questions but he refused to go.

The Tigers later alleged Col Karuna had to answer charges of embezzling of funds.

Then Col Karuna gave an interview to the Associated Press news agency saying he was splitting from the Tigers.

As he gave more and more interviews to the media the renegade commander started giving new reasons for his behaviour.

He cited regional rivalries between Tamils from the east and the north of the island. Col Karuna was born in Batticaloa district in the east but most of the rebel leadership come from the northern Jaffna peninsula.

He started to complain that boys from the east had become the cannon fodder of the Tigers but the more backward east had not been rewarded with development funds after a ceasefire was signed in 2002 and peace talks were under way.

Then he said he'd defected to prevent the Tigers starting a new wave of war against the government.

The commentator Sivaram, who knew Colonel Karuna well, wrote that his rebellion "was ad hoc from start to finish" - there was no long term plan behind it.

The details of how Col Karuna negotiated his alliance with the Sri Lankan army are not clear. But he had met many senior officers and politicians during several rounds of peace talks abroad.

His defection triggered fighting in the east in 2004 between his forces and those rebels still loyal to the mainstream Tigers, during which hundreds of under-aged fighters were shown on Sri Lankan TV leaving the frontline and returning home.

UK issues

What's not clear is whether Col Karuna came to the UK late last year with the intention of staying permanently or just for a visit.

We are deeply concerned that Karuna and his faction... are still believed to be involved in intimidation and child recruitment
UK High Commission
Colombo

After his arrest in the UK, his lawyer said in court that he'd come to see his wife and three children.

Col Karuna said his forged diplomatic passport and visa were arranged for him by the Sri Lankan defence secretary.

Sri Lanka has denied this. But it's hard to see how Col Karuna could have got a diplomatic passport without the government knowing about it.

Once he'd quietly slipped into the UK rumours started circulating in Sri Lanka that Col Karuna was in London.

It's not known who tipped off the British police. It may have been prompted by the British High Commission in Colombo who were following up on the rumours.

Col Karuna was held for several weeks before being charged with identity fraud. In his court hearing the prosecution said he'd posed as a Sri Lanka government official attending a climate change conference.

His defence lawyer told the judge Col Karuna did not have a criminal record in the UK.

"It must have been a very frightening experience being taken away from his family into a detention centre and subsequently into the prison," the lawyer said.

Human rights groups called for him to be investigated for war crimes.

What next?

Meanwhile Col Karuna is back in immigration detention in the UK, having served a prison sentence over the passport issue.

The site of a bomb attack in eastern Sri Lanka, 9 May, 2008
Violence has continued in the east

The likelihood is that he will be deported back to Sri Lanka once the paper work is complete. His lawyer says he has not claimed asylum.

Human rights group Amnesty International has expressed disappointment that despite six months of investigation the British authorities haven't found enough evidence to charge him.

Amnesty said it was aware of numerous allegations against him that merited investigation.

Unusually the British High Commission in Colombo has also issued a statement saying: "We are deeply concerned that Karuna and his faction have allegedly been responsible for murder and abductions and are still believed to be involved in intimidation and child recruitment."

Will Karuna be prosecuted?

Human rights activists say the problem with trying to charge Col Karuna over rights abuses is finding witnesses who are willing to take the risk of coming forward.

Fighters in Karuna's group in the east
Fighters in Karuna's group in the east

Even potential witnesses living outside Sri Lanka will be concerned about the safety of their relatives in Sri Lanka.

And there's the issue of jurisdiction.

To be charged with child recruitment in the UK the accused has to be a UK resident. In this case it would need a very broad interpretation of the law to say Col Karuna was a resident when he was visiting his family and had only been in the country two months.

The allegations of child recruitment against Col Karuna are widespread - both from the time he was with the Tamil Tigers and after he left them.

The United Nations children's agency, Unicef, has repeatedly issued statements accusing Col Karuna and his faction of forcibly recruiting child soldiers.

Journalists and other eyewitnesses have seen children as young as 13 holding Kalashnikov rifles and manning his checkpoints.

To be charged with torture in the UK a person has to be allied with state forces.

For Col Karuna that would have to be any time after March 2004 when he split from the Tigers.

Col Karuna could also in theory be investigated for hostage taking any time after 1988, including when he was with the Tigers.

But it would have to be proven that he wanted to influence the actions of a third party by taking a hostage.

The problem facing investigators may be that the Tigers would not be keen for his actions before 2004 to be scrutinised and the Sri Lanka Government won't want them investigated during the period he was allied with them.

On top of this, in particular cases it would it would be hard to prove the chain of command leading to Colonel Karuna personally in an organisation as secretive as the Tigers.

And after 2004 it would be even harder to prove because of the shadowy nature of different paramilitary groups operating in the east of Sri Lanka.




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