The whereabouts of breakaway rebel commander Karuna were unknown and most of his forces had deserted as the Tigers emerged triumphant from the split that shattered their iron discipline and complicated efforts to end 20 years of civil war.

    

"We visited the area and found the situation returning to normal and that there is no conflict at all," said Sukumar Rockwood, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. "People were found gradually returning to their homes." 

   

More than 3000 people were forced to flee after the Tigers launched an offensive to retake areas of the east held by Karuna - the movement's name for V Muralitharan - who split from the group in early March with about 6000 of its 15,000 troops.

   

Replacement

 

Monitors who oversee the island's two-year truce said the Tigers had installed Karuna's replacement, Ramesh, in the area, whom they met late on Monday.

 

Karuna's forces retreated in the
face of main LTTE offensive

"Ramesh met our monitors to re-establish communication with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in the area. The meeting was good. We are back on track again," said Hagrup Haukland, the deputy head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission.

   

Since it is only the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers who are signatories to the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire, the monitors did not have contact with Karuna's faction and suspended patrols in his areas, but Haukland said those would resume soon.

 

Karuna's fate

   

"It is quite clear the LTTE has regained control over the area," he said.

   

But the fate of Karuna himself was unclear and it was not known if the Tigers would be content to re-establish control or if they would try to see through their mission with a personal attack after vowing to "get rid of Karuna from our soil".

 

"It is quite clear the LTTE has regained control over the area"

Hagrup Haukland,
deputy head,
Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission

Local media reported he had sought asylum with the army, but there were other reports he had fled the country and the pro-rebel Tamilnet website said he was holed up in a jungle hideout.

   

Rockwood said the Red Cross had no word from him or any requests to pass on messages to his family, thought to have been spirited out of the country shortly after the split.

   

The split overshadowed a campaign for the island's 2 April parliamentary election and raised concerns of further delays to early peace talks between the LTTE and the new government.

   

The talks broke down last April and President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose party won the election, has said she wants to restart the talks as soon as possible.