COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — As many as 68 Tamil guerrillas were killed in what was described as a "massacre of unarmed people" as rival separatist groups clashed in eastern Batticaloa province, police and residents said Monday.
The powerful Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam staged a series of raids on vehicles and houses of unarmed rival Tamil groups on Sunday.
"It's one-sided. It's just been a massacre of unarmed people," said Joseph Kingsley Swampillai, Roman Catholic bishop of Batticaloa.
Most of the dead are believed to have been members of the rival People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam. At least 22 members were killed and 11 others were injured when the Tigers attacked two buses outside one village.
A spokesman for another rival group, the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front, said at least eight members were killed in the attacks.
Death Toll Could Rise
Residents said that squads of Tigers continued raiding villages on Monday and dragged away up to 40 members of one rival group, known as the Three Stars.
In Batticaloa town, about 200 miles northeast of Colombo, schools closed early and public transport came to a near halt. Government agencies in the district remained open.
All-India radio said the death toll could run as high as 75 people.
"This is butchery, absolute butchery," said Nimal de Silva, the Batticaloa district police chief. "The Tigers are hell-bent on annihilating the other groups."
Fierce battles raged Monday in the Kathankudi area and in the villages of Arayampattai and Chenkaladi, police said.
In New Delhi, the Indian government expressed "distress and grief" at the fighting, the most serious violence on the island since India and the government on July 29 signed a peace accord aimed at ending the Tamil rebels' four-year war for a separate homeland.
Struggle for Power
India guaranteed to implement the pact's provisions by sending 9,000 soldiers to Sri Lanka to oversee the surrender of weapons by the rebels. But Sri Lankan officials have said the Tamil militias have kept at least 50% of their guns.
The Tamil feuding is seen as a struggle for power in a new government with more autonomy in Tamil areas under the peace accord. The Tigers, the largest Tamil militia, have opposed the accord, but rival groups have favored it.
Residents said tension rose in Batticaloa district in the past few days when the Three Stars group followed the Tigers in opening political offices in several villages.
Tamils, most of whom are Hindus, make up 18% of the population of 16 million in Sri Lanka, off the coast of southern India. They claim discrimination by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority.