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30th April 2000

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Fighting spirit

Despite their wounds, these soldiers are determined to get back to the battlefront

By Faraza Farook and Nilika de Silva

While civilian involvement in the war effort has escalated, soldiers flown into Colombo following fierce battles at Elephant Pass are determined to get back to operational areas as soon as they recover.

Trying to capture the feel of the battlefront, at the entrance to the Jaffna peninsula, The Sunday Times spoke to soldiers warded at the National hospital

Despite the seriousness of their wounds the soldiers appeared unanimous in their wish to get back to their posts so they could regain lost territory.

Some of the soldiers who were warded at the National Hospital had been wounded for the second time and some even for the third. But their thoughts still centred round the war situation.

Despite being confined to bed and possibilities of an arm or leg being amputated, they were confident they would be healthy to face the battle again.

Thirty one-year-old Shiran Abeysekera suffered a fractured leg trying to rescue a 152mm gun that was stuck in the sand. "I managed to retrieve a lot of weapons, but when I went back to get this gun I was hit by a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG)," Shiran said.

When Shiran went to the site with a convoy of ten vehicles, the terrorists had already occupied the area where the gun was located. On seeing the forces, they had attacked with grenades, RPGs and mortars. "The vehicle managed to turn around and get to safety," he said.

Shiran's regrets are not about his wounds, but that he could not rescue the 152mm gun despite all the effort. "My leg was in two," said Shiran who had to hold his broken leg together until he was brought to the Palaly hospital.

Patriotism had driven 23 year-old Nandalal Pushpakumara to join the Army. He had both his legs fractured at the Elephant Pass attack last week. A former government servant, Pushpakumara joined the forces without telling his family, fearing they would stop him, his aunt Kamala Weerasinghe said.

Pushpakumara was after surgery and was still regaining consciousness when we saw him.

It was incredible to see how these soldiers though suffering from multiple injuries were still very much in a militray mindframe, even answering in military jargon.

"I was injured at 20:15 hours on April 18," said Captain Dimuthu Welagedera who has been attached to the Army for the past nine years. Dimuthu was flown to the National hospital via Palaly on April 19 morning.

It was also heartening to see service personnel helping out to cheer up their wounded colleagues. A man in military uniform wheeled a cart filled with oranges and apples, while young army women fed their male counterparts whose bandaged arms did not allow them to do the job themselves.

Meanwhile the Army Welfare Unit at the hospital was engaged in contacting the relatives of the wounded soldiers flown into Colombo. They were also making arrangements to ensure that all necessary facilities were being provided to the soldiers during their stay in hospital.

The wards were also packed with relatives who had come to visit 'their soldiers'. Although they were worried for the safety of their sons, brothers and husbands, none of them attempted to hold them back. These boys always insisted on going back said many of them with an air of resignation.

Describing the events that led to him being brought to Colombo, Second Lieutenant N.T. Milton (27) who had been almost 10 years in the Army said he was wounded in face to face combat.

Inspite of all they had been through these men, even from their hospital beds did not voice any regrets for the trauma they had endured.


They came in their thousands

After an overwhelming response from the public to donate blood for military casualties following an announcement, the Central Blood bank (CBB) has decided to establish a regular donor list.

The CBB was able to collect more than 2500 pints of blood from about 2000 donors since the announcement was made on April 20, Blood Bank Director Dr. Ranjini Bindusara said.

"Around 1000 donors come daily after the announcement was made but we have been able to take blood only from about 400 to 500 people each day," a medical officer Dr. S.D. Thilakawardene said.

Dr. Bindusara said many companies had also requested for mobile units in their respective establishments.

The blood bank is also hoping to distribute excess stocks to their 56 regional blood banks in the country.

The CBB has also decided to put up a notice asking interested donors to register themselves so that the bank could get in touch with them when there was a need, Dr. Bindusara said.

Dr. Thilakawardene said those who had already donated blood, would be called again after four months.

"People always tend to respond well during an emergency, but they should try to make it a regular practice, without restricting it to times of crisis," she emphasised.


The donations came pouring in

By Shelani de Silva

With the sudden influx of wounded soldiers following the Elephant Pass attack, public response to help soldiers and their family members to locate the wounded has been tremendous.

While religious and volunteer organisations came forward by visiting the soldiers and assisting the wounded the general public too were prompt in their services soon after the attack.

Reacting to the urgent appeal for blood last Sunday morning, more than 500 people flocked to the blood bank to donate blood. The response was the same the following day.

Meanwhile organisations such as The All Ceylon Buddhist Congress accepted donations from the public at its headquarters throughout the week and it will continue to do so. The ACBC also gave accommodation and meals to the family members of the wounded. ACBC president S. Devapura said there were many families who needed accommodation. "The Army provided them transport to hospital and back."Although we provided them lunch most of them took only a cup of tea anxious to get to hospital early.

A special counter was opened at the ACBC to accept public donations excluding cash. The Sudu Nelum Movement with the cooperation of the Army opened a office close to Army Head Quarters to assist the families of the soldiers.

The movement said some of the essential items that were needed were crutches, wheelchairs, table fans and medical equipment.

The Army headquarters too was accepting donations.

Military Spokesman Brigadier Palitha Fernando told The Sunday Times that the public response had been encouraging adding that it would be advisable to call the Welfare (donation) Branch when donating items.

'The public response was good with soldiers receiving fruits, chocolates and other items. These donations will help to boost the morale of the soldiers.But it would be more useful if the public could donate the items we are really in need of," he said.

The Dharmaayathanaya headed by Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera was also providing assistance to soldiers and collecting donations. Some of the younger members volunteered to write letters for the soldiers. Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera said the soldiers were in need of sarongs and bed sheets .

"We do not accept cash, but medicines are most welcome. We have installed two hot lines so that the families can inquire after the wounded," explained the monk. Meanwhile the Colombo District Development Committee on Tuesday appealed to the public to cancel festivities. A member of the Committee and Parliamentarian Bennet Cooray told The Sunday Times that following the appeal several functions had been cancelled. Cabinet ministers last week also decided to donate one month's salary towards the wounded while the SLFP decided to do away with floats and other decorations on May Day and donate the money to the soldiers.


The good and the bad

While the public came forward in a generous and genuine effort to help the wounded soldiers, like in most cases there were those who thrived on the situation.

While most oganisations were busy accepting donations and carrying out their services some groups were carrying out their own modus operandi.

The genuine organisations from the start had refused to accept cash but in and around Colombo several people were going from house to house on the pretext of collecting money for the soldiers.

President of the ACBC made an appeal to the public not to give money after it was brought to his notice that a Buddhist monk was collecting money.

"We have never collected money for the soldiers, people can donate whatever items they wished to," he said.


Show time

The Elephant Pass debacle provided the opportunity for some politicians to come on TV and display their 'grim' faces on screen. Visiting the wounded soldiers in hospital was fine but they didn't hesitate to take their camera crews along with them too.

When The Sunday Times contacted a Deputy Minister, his clerk said the Parliamentarian was at the Army hospital attending a prize distribution function.

The clerk may have phrased it wrong, but the actions of some of these politicos did appear to be more like a prize distribution farce.


Interview

We're reaping what PA sowed, says Ranil

By Hiranthi Fernando

Conducting the war on a political agenda is the main reason for the debacle at the Elephant Pass, says Opposition UNP Leader in an interview with The Sunday Times.

Describing the present security situation in the north as a crucial stage in the 17-year war, Mr. Wickremesinghe said the PA government's change of strategy in 1995 had changed the war in favour of the LTTE. "We are reaping what the PA sowed," he said referring to the latest debacle.

Excerpts:

Q: How do you assess the current security situation in the north, especially after the fall of Elephant Pass?

A: The loss of Elephant Pass is a major setback. Elephant Pass and Palaly are two strategic centres in the Jaffna peninsula. Palaly is important because all troop movements and supplies to the peninsula take place through this centre. Therefore Palaly has to be safeguarded to ensure that the Army can stay in the peninsula.

Elephant Pass is the only land bridge into the peninsula. The peninsula can be compared to a fortress surrounded by a moat with a single land bridge. Once you control Elephant Pass, you prevent the LTTE from bringing their armed cadre and their fighting units into the peninsula. Therefore, once you lose Elephant Pass, it is like breaking the main door of the fortress. Once the LTTE has got into the peninsula, as it has done now, then it can move at will and decide at Kodikamam, whether to go towards Point Pedro or further on to Pallai, meaning whether to move towards Palaly or Jaffna Town.

As long as we control Elephant Pass, the initiative lies with us. Once the LTTE has broken through Elephant Pass, the military initiative passes on to it and we are left with the defence of the Palaly/Kankasanthurai sector and any other areas held by the Army. This is the predicament we are in today.

Already small groups of LTTE cadres are operating within the peninsula. They can coordinate their actions with the armed units, which have come into the peninsula. This is a crucial stage of the Government's military campaign against the LTTE.

Q: What is the cause for this debacle in your view?

A: The Government ran this military campaign on a political agenda. A complete military solution was not possible. Even Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa advised the then UNP Government. What he said was, the army would kick the LTTE on to the conference table by weakening it so that the Government could impose the conditions it wanted on the LTTE and bring the war to an end.

The military campaign of 1994 under the UNP Government was therefore for the purpose of weakening the LTTE and achieving the objectives set out by Gen. Kobbekaduwa. In 1995, the PA Government thought of fighting a war for political purposes. It wanted to tell the country that it was going to defeat the LTTE and end the war. This was fought on a political agenda to be completed before a period of six years.

Up to 1994, the Army, a regular force, fought the LTTE, which was a guerrilla group, on the basis of guerrilla tactics. Our main objective was to destroy the manpower of the LTTE, to reduce the numbers faster than they could increase.

The battle of Elephant Pass in 1991 and even during the LTTE assault on Pooneryn, and in a few other key engagements, the LTTE lost a large number of fighting cadres, especially the junior leadership. The LTTE was in this debilitated position when the PA began its war in 1995.

The Government decided to fight this as a conventional war. It looked nice on television. It gave nice photographs for the print media. Nice stories could be told in Parliament. Instead of destroying the LTTE strength, the government focused on capturing territory. Controlling territory real estate was their goal. Then the troop strength got bogged down in static defences. Earlier we had a small number in static defences. We did not want to control too much territory in the north and there were large mobile forces which carried out operations. The change of strategy stretched the available manpower thinly over the whole of the northern province.

It enabled the LTTE to regroup and hit the Army, taking over the major military installations one by one. The LTTE cleared most of the Wanni area of military installations. We are back at Thandikulam where we were in 1994. Now they are moving up on to the Jaffna peninsula.

Together with this, competent professional military officers who told the Government that this objective could not be achieved in the given time were either moved out of the Army or called UNPers and cornered. Politics came into the armed Forces. A number of officers left the Army. We are reaping what the PA sowed.

Q: What is your opinion of the latest changes in the Army command structure?

A: Those sudden changes are not good for the army command structure. The command structure should be decided before battle. In December last year, the LTTE announced it was going to take over the Jaffna peninsula. The command structure should have been in place. Making changes in command at the last minute should be avoided as far as possible. Because the new man takes over the establishment created by the outgoing commander. He has no time to reorganise it the way he thinks fit.

Q. What do you think should be done now?

A: My assessment is that the LTTE is trying to get more victories to strengthen itself at the negotiating table. After all the Government is now committed to talk to the LTTE and the negotiations are about to start. On the other hand, the LTTE gave adequate publicity to its claim that it was going to takeover the Jaffna peninsula. All the government had to do was to safeguard Jaffna Peninsula and ensure that Elephant Pass did not fall. Anuruddha Ratwatte announced in Parliament last month that they would not give up Elephant Pass at any cost.

In 1991, when Elephant Pass was attacked by the LTTE, the camp held out with a strength of 800 soldiers. It was there that Corporal Gamini Kularatne gave up his life to destroy an LTTE bulldozer cum armoured vehicle. That was the heroism of Elephant Pass. Then a large number of troops landed at Vettilaikerni. Some of the senior officers lost their lives, but they destroyed a large number of LTTE cadres. It was announced that two divisions were guarding Elephant Pass. That is over 15,000 men if one considers both to be under strength. There were armoured vehicles and artillery not available in 1991. This camp should have been defended. But the Government's interference and the dictation of military strategy broke the Army. It is the same Army which put up the heroic fight in Elephant Pass in 1991. This is the difference today.

Q: What do you say about the President being away at this time?

A: Unfortunately, the President has left the country without making adequate arrangements in the conduct of military operations. There does not seem to have been an acting minister of defence. In the first communique, about Ratnasiri Wickremanayake taking over her work, there was no mention of an acting minister of defence. If someone has taken oaths why don't they publish the photograph in the state media? It would have been better if the President had been in Sri Lanka or returned to Sri Lanka, but I don't think it would have made a big difference because the PA military strategy has already determined the outcome of the war.

Q: You, the opposition leader, was also away until Tuesday?

A: The opposition leader has no role to play in the defence structure. I was in India and I was speaking to Indian leaders at that time. And that was a useful job I think. The High Commissioner was associated with the discussions.

When I heard of the fall of Elephant Pass, I was in South India. The quickest I could have returned was on Monday. But on Monday I had appointments with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and opposition leader Jayalalitha. It was the first time that a national leader has met with the leaders of Tamil Nadu.

In that prevailing situation, I thought the best contribution I could make was to keep those two appointments to build up the links. I flew to Colombo on Tuesday.

Q: What is your view on the talks with Norwegian facilitation? Some people feel the talks will be a discussion on what to give the LTTE.

A: The Norwegian Government is talking to the LTTE at the request of the Sri Lankan Government. The talks are now between the Norwegian Government and the Sri Lankan Government. The LTTE has emphasised that any proposals on devolution must be accepted by both parties. The bi-partisan concept. That is why when the President invited us, we decided to join in the discussion. The UNP has always upheld the position of a political solution. We are engaged with the Government in formulating a common set of proposals in regard to devolution. At that stage our task is over. Then the Government has to take over the discussion with the LTTE on the basis of the proposals.

The LTTE has synchronised its political and military strategy to strengthen it politically when it comes for talks with the Government. Unfortunately the government has not synchronised its military and political strategies.

Q: Based on previous experiences, and what's happening now, do you think the talks will be useful?

A: I think the talks will be useful, especially having the Government and the LTTE talking to each other. Remember that this Government was committed to a military solution of wiping out the LTTE. It went for talks when it found that the military objective could not be achieved. The Government must know how to coordinate its strategy to achieve its desired objectives during negotiations.

Q: There is considerable opposition to Norwegian facilitation because some believe Oslo is more supportive of the LTTE.

A: The LTTE named three countries, I understand, South Africa, Britain and Norway. The government selected Norway and I don't think they can now go back on that.

Q: You have called on the media to violate the censorship.

A: I don't think the censorship does any good to this nation. It is not preventing the exposure of military secrets. It has been imposed to protect persons and the Government. The Information Department is acting in a partisan manner. It violates all the norms of equality before the law. The censorship as it is operated here prevents people from getting to know facts to which they are entitled. People outside Sri Lanka have information which is not available to citizens of Sri Lanka. At a crucial time, if the censorship tends to harm the nation then it is best that the censorship is not followed.

There is little the Government can do. The European Commission delivered a tripartite statement to the President and to me. It has insisted that the Government should uphold media freedom. This is just before the aid talks. In the background of this if the Government clamps down on the media on the grounds that they violated censorship, the Treasury will remain empty for a long time to come. Already the media have taken their case to the Human Rights Commission. The media should also take their case abroad.

Q: Did not the UNP too impose censorship on news?

A: There was censorship but it was not enforced most of the time. We had regular media briefings once a week. I was the cabinet spokesman and any problem got sorted out.

When the Pooneryn attack took place, for the first time we had a large number of casualties. Rather than enforce the censorship, I spoke to the editors and made a request that while reporting the Pooneryn battle, to gradually break the numbers. We wanted time to get the security arrangements in place to prevent a backlash as in 1983. The media cooperated, even the foreign media. At the end of the day we had the total numbers released.

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