21st January 2001
Its anger became clear after it heard the outcome of the latest round of talks Norwegian facilitator, Eric Solheim, had with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
During his four day visit to Colombo on January 10, Mr. Solheim was told by President Kumaratunga in clear terms that her Government would not accept the LTTE's reported enforcement of a month long cease-fire. Citing reasons for such a move, she told Mr. Solheim the Government would consider the question of a cease-fire only when direct talks begin.
Such talks, she asserted, would have to be confined to a specific time frame where the discussions should centre on core issues.
Mr. Solheim conveyed the outcome of his latest round of talks to LTTE's ideologue and "Ambassador-at-Large," Dr. Anton Balasingham, who is in London.
In the past week, satellite telephone calls between Dr. Balasingham and the LTTE leadership in the Wanni continued at a hectic pace. Evidently, the question uppermost was what the LTTE should do when its month long unilateral cease-fire on Wednesday, January 24, expires.
Does it extend it and continue to mount international pressure to force the Government to yield ? Or, does it call off the "cease-fire" and declare all out war against the security forces ?
The latter appears to be the emerging answer.
Last Thursday night, Dr. Balasingham who was in London received a telephone call from N. Vithyatharan, Associate Editor of Jaffna's Tamil daily "Uthayan" – still the main source of information for the news-starved public of Jaffna.
A telephone interview followed. The interview itself has now become the subject of a Police inquiry. The "Uthayan" staff has been questioned and the Police have recorded a statement from Mr. Vithyatharan.
In what "Uthayan" described as a "Special Interview with Dr. Balasingham," the LTTE's latest official position was spelt out. Dr. Balasingham said the LTTE would not extend its unilateral cease-fire if the Government continued to pursue military action. Peace talks could then be held only after Tiger guerrillas pushed back Government troops to their "old positions."
The reference to "old positions" meant the defence lines the troops held before re-capture of territory during military offensives, both last year and this month.
This is how Dr. Balasingham's interview in the "Uthayan" of January 19, was posted in the Tamilnet website, also on January 19:
"The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) will not extend its unilateral month long cease-fire, due to expire next week, if the Sri Lankan government continues the current offensive operation in the southern sector of the Jaffna peninsula, the organisation's chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, said Friday in a special interview to the popular Jaffna daily, the Uthayan. The LTTE's cease-fire deadline expires on January24.
"We are sincerely concerned about the creation of conditions of peace whereas Chandrika's government is fiercely determined to prosecute the war", Mr. Balasingham said.
"If the government seeks a military option and continues the current offensive operation we will not extend our self-imposed cessation of hostilities", he said.
"Thereafter we will consider peace options only when we establish the status quo on the ground by pushing back the government troops to their previous positions", the LTTE official told 'Uthayan'.
"Commenting on the Norwegian formula for de-escalation, Mr. Balasingham said that the LTTE was favourably considering Oslo's proposal.
"It is a constructive proposal for confidence building. It entails mutual reciprocal actions by which both the parties in conflict de-escalate the war and create conducive conditions for peace talks", he said.
"As the first phase of this confidence building exercise the government is requested to withdraw the economic embargo allowing free flow of food, medicine and other essential items to the North and the LTTE, on its part, is obliged to cease all hostile offensive actions in the Sinhala south", Mr. Blasingham elaborated.
"We welcomed this proposal because it is pragmatic and will lead to the reduction of the conflict and pave the way for reconciliation and negotiations.
But unfortunately at this juncture Sri Lanka has launched a major offensive operation to retake Elephant Pass causeway", he said further.
"This military operation, we have warned the government through the Norwegian peace envoy, will escalate the military confrontation and seriously impair the current peace initiatives", Mr. Balasingham pointed out.
"Our organisation has conceded a lot for peace. We have declared a month long cease-fire. We have even withdrawn from areas we have captured. We cannot expect Mr. Pirapaharan to concede further. Therefore, the prospect for peace depends entirely on the policy of Kumaratunga's government", Mr. Balasingham told Uthayan.
If the government agrees to observe peace, suspending the current military adventure and come forward to implement the Norwegian peace project, we will consider extending the cease-fire the LTTE political advisor said".
A day before he received the "Uthayan" telephone call from Jaffna, Dr. Balasingham, is learnt to have told Mr. Solheim, of the LTTE decision not to extend its "unilateral cease-fire" if the Government continued with its military operations. The Norwegian facilitator, in turn is learnt to have conveyed this to Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. This was through the Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Jon Westborg.
After a study of the Norwegian communication, the Ministry of Defence was directed to issue a statement setting out the Government's position. Though the statement appeared insignificant and came amidst a string of other news releases, it was Government's response to the latest LTTE message. Director of Information, Ariya Rubesinghe, placed his signature to the statement sent to him by Army Headquarters with the approval of the Ministry of Defence.
This is what the statement issued on January 17 said:
"Under the guise of a so-called cease-fire, reportedly effective from December 24, 2000, the LTTE has continued their attacks, both on the security forces and civilians.
"There are 49 occasions when the self-acclaimed ceasefire has been violated, on most occasions by the use of artillery and mortar attacks. During these incidents, three security forces personnel have been killed and 23 others wounded. One civilian was also killed and another wounded.
"These incidents make it abundantly clear that claims of unilaterally enforcing a cease-fire is only a transparent ploy by the LTTE to mislead the international community, to buy time to recruit, re-arm and re-train its cadres.
"Increased acts of violence by the LTTE, particularly after the enforcement of the purported ceasefire, have compelled the security forces to intensify their military operations. They are not only aimed at protecting soldiers and military installations against artillery/mortar attacks from areas which security forces are fighting to regain control with a view to pre-empt deliberate attacks by the LTTE, but are also to ensure the greater safety and welfare of the civilian population.
"In these circumstances, the security forces are not only performing their mandatory role to safeguard the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka, but are compelled to effectively meet the increased threats posed by the LTTE."
"Hence, the LTTE's claim of enforcing a unilateral ceasefire is once more a farce and is grossly misleading".
The Government branding the LTTE's unilateral ceasefire as a "farce" and clearly emphasising that military offensives would continue leaves little room for doubt.
As President Kumaratunga told the National Security Council (Situation Report – January 7), there would be no let up on military operations. Not unless there is a dramatic change in Government policy from now on, a position which is highly unlikely.
On the other hand, the LTTE has made clear that its self-imposed truce will end next Wednesday, if the Government does not call off its military offensives. Thus, both sides are poised for more battles come next week – a situation where the Norwegian facilitator appears to be in a position to do very little.
What has irked the LTTE is the launch of "Operation Kiniheera IX," the latest two day offensive of the security forces, which failed to achieve the totality of declared objective.
However, troops did succeed in securing some nine square kilometres in general areas of Ponnar and Kilaly, on the thin strip of land that links the Jaffna peninsula with mainland Sri Lanka. (See map on this page)
Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, was on hand in Jaffna to oversee Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, Major General Anton Wijendra direct "Operation Kinihira IX." It was executed by Major General Sunil Tennekoon, a one time Director of Military Intelligence who is now GOC of the Army's 55 Division. Two brigades were involved in the offensive operation.
On January 16, troops broke out from their defences in Idattalpalai, a village near the Kilaly lagoon, and advanced southwards despite heavy resistance. By midday they had captured Ponnar and Kilaly. The next day, troops consolidated their positions but further advances were impeded by heavy Tiger guerrilla resistance, particularly artillery and mortar fire. Troops recovered an assortment of war like material.
Casualties were unusually high. Official accounts said two officers and 71 soldiers were killed. It said a further 21 officers and 359 were wounded. Other sources said 80 officers and soldiers were killed and 559 were wounded. Among the wounded, P1 or badly wounded were four officers and 62 soldiers, P2, five officers and 82 soldiers and P3 or minor injury cases, 46 officers and 360 soldiers.
A question on whether the Army leadership did not envisage strong resistance from Tiger guerrillas during "Operation Kinihira IX" was being raised within the security establishment. This was on the basis of a number of significant developments.
One was the LTTE decision not to oppose troops engaged in "Operation Kinihira VIII" which led to the security forces re-capturing a vast stretch of the A-9 highway including the Navatkuli and Kaithady bridges. In addition, they also seized control of Thanankilappu and Ariyalai areas. Only two soldiers received minor injuries during this operation. That was from shrapnel after an improvised anti-personnel mine exploded.
The LTTE's move to cede these strategic areas to the security forces, intelligence sources explained, was not only because of the difficulty in moving supplies, but more importantly, to bolster their defences in areas south and south east of the Jaffna peninsula. Having seized almost all areas Tiger guerrillas held since May, last year, it became clear the security forces would now have to oust them from two specific areas to be in control of the entire peninsula.
One was the area south of Eluthumaduval, the isthmus that linked the peninsula to the mainland. The other was another thin strip of land south of Nagar Kovil, with a narrow lagoon on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. Intelligence reports spoke of additional Tiger cadres being positioned in these two areas.
That was not all. More mortar launchers had been moved in from the Wanni and positioned in the two areas to stall any security forces offensive.
Besides this factor, LTTE's Dr. Anton Balasingham, was to publicly announce that the LTTE was expecting a security forces offensive "to penetrate the LTTE's defence positions along the Kilaly- Eluthumaduval-Nagar Kovil axis to push towards Elephant Pass."
In an interview with Tamil Guardian of January 13, a pro-LTTE newspaper published in London, he said….. "We have reliable intelligence reports to confirm that the Sri Lanka Government has inducted fresh combat troops, battle tanks, heavy artillery pieces and multi-barrel rocket launchers in the Jaffna theatre of war to launch a major offensive assault against the LTTE.
"The strategic objective of the current military manoeuvre is aimed at over running our defence positions along the Kilaly-Eluthumaduval-Nagar Kovil axis to push towards Elephant Pass. Such a strategy will result in a major escalation of the war and blood bath."
Dr. Balasingham also had an explanation for the LTTE withdrawal from Chavakachcheri and later from Ariyalai. This is what he said in the same interview:
"It would have been extremely difficult for us to hold positions and engage in counter-offensive operations while we are obliged to observe unilateral cessation of hostilities. Apart from that the terrain was militarily disadvantageous for a defensive war. Our forces will be vulnerable to aerial assault in those areas with open spaces.
Furthermore, we faced serious logistic problems of bringing personnel and supplies from Pooneryn crossing the Jaffna lagoon…."
How did the LTTE know the security forces will make a push towards Elephant Pass and were making preparations for it ? Was it only by observing preparations on the ground? On the other hand, was the Army leadership unaware of Dr. Balasingham's pronouncement ? If they did, would they not have been aware the LTTE would have strengthened themselves for counter attacks ? Would not an early awareness have helped security forces to overcome a situation that led to heavy casualties ? These are among the many questions that beg answer.
Through a series of measures including the introduction of superior equipment, the security forces have got a new found confidence. This is not only borne from the knowledge of their superior position vis-à-vis LTTE numbers and equipment but also because of the knowledge that the LTTE has difficulties in finding manpower and re-introducing new equipment.
Hitherto, one of the main constraints the security forces have had had been political vacillation regarding the conduct of the war. This is the first time any Government has taken a strong stand on the grounds that the LTTE ceasefire offer is visibly for its strategic advantage.
The refusal by the Government to accede carte blanche to the demands of the LTTE, against the face of political and economic pressures by the international community, as well as domestic pressures, particularly on the economic front, comes at a very crucial moment. It is with this confidence that the security forces have launched a series of military offensives. Though the success may have been limited, the confidence outweighs the physical gains.
However, the security forces must be mindful that after the Wanni, Elephant Pass and Jaffna adventures, if not by their earlier performance, the LTTE should not be under estimated. Even if one is made to believe that the LTTE has now been weakened, with its ranks decimated through press releases (that too under a Censorship), the reality on the ground is different.
Contrary to it being weakened, it is well known that the LTTE needs time to acquire new equipment and train its cadres to meet the new superior fire power of the security forces.
It is equally important for the Government to realise that the protracted separatist war is a means to create a ground situation so that a political settlement could be arrived at in a climate free of armed hostilities.
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