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Rival Sri Lanka Rebel Factions Clash, 9 Killed

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COLOMBO (Reuters) - Rival factions of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels exchanged mortar and machine gun fire in the country's east on Friday and nine people were killed in the worst fighting since a two-year truce halted the island's civil war.

Pro-rebel media also said 300 fighters loyal to breakaway eastern commander Karuna had surrendered in fighting that complicates efforts by a new government to revive a stalled peace process with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"About eight fighters were reported killed on both sides," the Tamilnet Web site said. "The infantry formations... were spearheaded by crack commando units of the LTTE and were backed by heavy artillery fire."

It said eight injured had also been brought to hospital in Batticaloa, the stronghold of Karuna, who is estimated to have the support of more than 6,000 of the LTTE's 15,000 fighters.

Sources said an ambulance driver sent to the area was killed when his vehicle hit a land mine.

Military spokesman Colonel Sumedha Perera said the main LTTE group and Karuna's faction had exchanged mortar and machine gun fire across the Verugal river just south of the port of Trincomalee, about 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Colombo.

"There was intermittent heavy weapons fire," Perera said.

Defense Secretary Cyril Herath said the Sri Lankan army had not been drawn into the fighting.

"So far they (the rebel factions) are not moving through government-controlled areas. Should they move into our areas we will have to ask them to move back. We will have to deal with that situation as it arises," he told Reuters.

A spokesman for Karuna -- the nom de guerre for eastern commander V. Muralitharan -- could not be reached for comment.

The split is the worst internal threat to the LTTE since the group began its fight for a separate Tamil state in the north and east of the island in 1983.

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