updated 4/8/2004 11:42:56 PM ET 2004-04-09T03:42:56

Heavy firing erupted Friday between two Tamil Tiger rebel factions in eastern Sri Lanka, the country’s first fighting since a 2002 cease-fire halted its civil war, the guerrillas and military said.

Fighters from the main Tamil Tiger rebel group based in the north clashed with members of a breakaway eastern faction at the Verugal River, where the two sides have squared off since they split early last month, the sources said.

Mortars and gunfire were heard across the river Friday, rebels and military officials said. The military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, characterized the fighting as heavy.

Varathan, a spokesman for the breakaway faction, said fighters from the main faction had crossed the river into territory controlled by the breakaway group.

“There has been some penetration,” Varathan, who uses only one name, told The Associated Press. “We are trying to stabilize the situation. There has been some firing. We are engaging in counter attacks.”

He said there was fighting across the river and in Kathiruvelli, a coastal village about 9 miles from the river. “There are casualties on both sides,” Varathen said, but gave no details.

The fighting was the first since a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire in February 2002 halted fighting between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the Tamil rebels who launched a violent campaign for a separate homeland in 1983.

On March 3, the eastern commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, broke away from the main Tiger faction, taking more than 6,000 of the group’s 15,000 troops, arguing that eastern Tamils were treated poorly in the rebel organization.

The Sri Lankan army has a large presence near the river, and could easily be drawn into any conflict. There is no proper demarcation between government and rebel-controlled areas.

The split between the factions has complicated efforts to settle Sri Lanka’s two-decade civil war, which has killed 65,000 people.

Last Friday, a political alliance led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has taken a tough line toward the rebels, won the most seats in parliamentary elections, defeating the party led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who initiated the most recent round of peace efforts two years ago. Kumaratunga accused him of being too soft on the Tigers.

On Monday, the Tigers warned they’d go back to war if their demands for sweeping autonomy in Tamil-majority northeast Sri Lanka were not met. They say the minority Tamils face widespread discrimination from the ethnic Sinhalese majority.

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