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When gunmen jumped from stolen vans and tried to kill the founder of one of Toronto's feuding Tamil gangs at a traffic light in the city's north end last week, their 16-shot barrage marked a new stage in a vendetta.

Somehow, all the bullets missed Jothiravi Sittampalam, better known as Kannan, and his two passengers. Mr. Sittampalam, whose nickname forms part of the name of his AK Kannan gang, escaped with a finger cut by flying glass.

Police sources say there may have been as many as 50 cases of gunplay involving Tamil gangs in the past six months, ranging from killings and woundings to shots that missed cars and incidents so surrounded by intimidation that accounts are difficult for police to verify.

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Members of the Tamil community, an ethnic group with roots in Sri Lanka and southern India, acknowledge that there has been a spike in gang activity, once thought to be on the decline. There have also been fist fights, stabbings and a man deliberately run over and badly hurt.

The east side, especially Scarborough, has traditionally belonged to AK Kannan, and the west, including Mississauga, to the VVT gang, named for Valvettithurai, a northern Sri Lankan town.

In Scarborough last fall, bullets killed two Tamil teenagers -- neither thought to be a gang member -- in a parked car that was ambushed at night, possibly by mistake.

In the winter, a bullet narrowly missed a year-old child and his mother inside a car in Markham, north of the city. The baby's gang-member father, Panchaling Nagalingam, was quoted as daring his enemies to "come to my face; leave my son." In March, the enemies apparently obliged: Mr. Nagalingam was shot five times as he left a jail where he was serving a weekend sentence. He survived.

In that attack, a man was arrested. In the other high-profile shootings, no suspects have been caught.

The gangsters are a tiny fraction of Canada's Tamil community, as many as 200,000 people, most of whom live in Toronto. During the 1990s, people from Sri Lanka were Canada's top refugee group, the vast majority of them Tamils fleeing a bloody civil war in which Tamil guerrillas have been fighting for a homeland since the early 1980s.

The roots of the gang problem are often said to lie in the war orphans who came to Canada, whose circles of friends became their only family. Old village rivalries led to escalating fights and eventually a geographic divide.

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Tamils are by no means the first immigrant group plagued by a violent criminal element. Community members often point out that Italians, Eastern Europeans and Asian immigrants have gone through gang problems.

While the boldness of the attacks has put Tamil gangsters in the news, they don't always shoot straight. Tamil gangs are suspected in fewer of last year's homicides than north-end street thugs modelling themselves on Los Angeles gangs, who are thought to be responsible for six killings.

In an interview last week, Sri-Guggan Sri-Skanda-Rajah, a Tamil elder, said the public spectacle of young thugs settling scores overshadows stories of scholars, entrepreneurs and volunteers who work to steer young people away from gangs.

"Unfortunately we come from a place where thuggery is a way of settling things," he said. "Thousands and thousands of us behave well and do very well in life. Less than one-tenth of 1 per cent can come along and hijack that. That's the tragedy."

The latest killings were in October when the two Tamil teens died in the parked car. While no arrests have been made, the father of one of the victims has no doubts about who was responsible.

"Our own Tamil gangsters here killed my son," Selvarajah Ramuppillai said, adding that his 17-year-old son Rishikesan was never a member of any gang.

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At 6-foot-3, the young man stood nearly as tall as the sapling now planted in his memory outside his high school.

His family had come to Toronto in August, 1999, to escape conflict in Sri Lanka. In January, after Rishikesan's death, they once again packed up to leave violence behind, moving to another Canadian city, the name of which Mr. Ramuppillai doesn't want published.

"These are very, very brutal fellows, you see?" he said, urging members of his community to break their silence about who killed his son. "They have to pass some special laws here to contain these fellows. Otherwise things will become very much worse. A lot of innocent people will get killed by these fellows."

Mr. Ramuppillai said inadequate laws and a frightened community have let the problem fester. "For the last 10, 15 years, they allowed these gangs to grow. Now my son, an innocent fellow, has become a victim to these gangs."

For years, police and the groups such as the Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre have been working to fight the gang problem. Community meetings are held; police pamphlets have been translated into Tamil and outreach programs have steered some teenagers away from gangs.

Toronto Police have set up a street violence unit to look at such activity. The expertise of a Tamil task force formed several years ago is to be added to the new unit.

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"Obviously, as a service we are very concerned with this type of criminal activity and we will continue to be vigilant to arrest those who are responsible," Sergeant Jim Muscat said.

Last week's attack on Kannan, whose gang stuck the initials of an assault rifle in front of his name, is expected to draw reprisals. "All these psychos, these stone-cold killers, are going to come out of the woodwork," said one officer who did not want his name used.

In addition to VVT and AK Kannan, smaller groups with younger members also exist. While outreach workers try to steer young people away, a core of hardened gang members, now adults, have proven difficult to remove, either with rivals' bullets or police work.

Tamil gang members have been accused of involvement in drugs, particularly heroin; weapons offences; credit-card scams and obstruction of justice, including intimidation of witnesses.

Intelligence reports that allege links between the Tamil Tigers guerrilla group in Sri Lanka and street gangs in Canada have proven highly controversial. Groups here vigorously deny such allegations, saying the gangs exist largely to fight one another.

Documents released early this month show how feuds can escalate. In an agreed statement of facts, three young men pleaded guilty to charges of manslaughter and second-degree murder in a plot to avenge a friend beaten with baseball bats and a golf club.

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Before dawn one June day in 1999, the men started following a car carrying three other men, one of whom was thought to have been involved in the original attack. The attackers pulled alongside the car; one, with a shotgun, began firing from the back seat, and another, with a .22-calibre handgun, from the front.

One of the three men attacked died. The gunmen drove to hospital after one was injured by a bullet intended for the other car. The hospital stop led to their arrests.

Despite the convictions, much mystery remains. Two other cars are known to have taken part in that attack. A gunman in another car, never identified, fired the bullet from a MAC 10 submachine gun that went through the car's licence plate and into the heart of Nishavathsalan Sundaralinam.

Maureen Pecknold, the Scarborough lawyer who prosecuted the case, said the Crown never found out who delivered that bullet. Nor were the thugs involved in the baseball-bat beating ever brought to justice.

"It ended up not going ahead to trial, because of things like recalcitrant witnesses," she said. Investigations@globeandmail.ca

Bullets and brawls

Incidents police think are related to Tamil gangs:

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May, 1993: A man known as Babu is killed with a shotgun in an argument over Sri Lankan politics. The consequences include a gang schism, obstruction-of-justice charges and a murder conviction eventually overturned in 2000.

December, 1997: Kapilan Palasanthiran, a 19-year-old University of Waterloo student, is shot in a doughnut shop. His killer is not found.

April, 1998: In a Hindu temple in Richmond Hill, rival gang factions gather to broker a truce. It lasts several months.

November, 1998: Fifty or more young people brawl, some with broken beer bottles, near a movie house in Toronto's Little India area.

June, 1999: Gunmen avenge a friend's baseball-bat beating in a drive-by shooting of a car carrying three men; one dies.

Two days later, Sandy Ebrahim, 16, is shot dead late at night at a Markham Burger King. Police later say she was the innocent victim of an attack meant for a Tamil man.

September, 2000: A Tamil group releases a study in which young people are quoted as saying the gang problem is dissipating. The same month, a 25-year-old man is beaten with clubs and run over twice in retaliation for a stabbing attack.

October, 2000: Two teenagers, 17 and 18, are killed in a car parked outside an apartment building.

November, 2000: Gang members are seen outside a police station videotaping licence plates of police officers' personal vehicles.

December, 2000: A baby is nearly shot in an attack against a gang member at his girlfriend's suburban home; the father challenges his attackers to come at him instead.

March, 2001: The father is shot five times as he leaves the Mimico Correctional Centre. He survives.

April, 2001: The leader of the AK Kannan gang and two others in the same car escape a 16-bullet attack.

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