26th August 2001
LTTE opens eastern front
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|On August 11,
Offic- ers-in-Charge of Po- lice Stations in the Ampara district, Army,
Air Force and Police Special Task Force (STF) sat for their regular conference
chaired by Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Bandula Wijesinghe. Their
task was to conduct a weekly review of the security situation in the district
and to assess Tiger guerrilla threats.
Inspector U.K. Marambe of the Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII) Unit at Ampara made an interesting disclosure. He said that there was specific information that Tiger guerrillas had planned to attack the Central Camp Police Station. He said that a group of 30 guerrillas from Mandur had come towards the Central Camp and were hiding at a secret location. Some civilians living in the neighbouring 11th Colony had provided information for the group to formulate an attack plan.
That was not just a chance disclosure. There is documentary evidence in the possession of The Sunday Times to confirm that the same weekly intelligence conference discussed guerrilla threats to Central Camp and adjoining areas on five different occasions between August 7 and 16. Hence, those who matter in the Police, Army, Air Force and Special Task Force in the Ampara district knew of Tiger guerrilla plans on the Central Camp Police.
Yet, Tiger guerrillas succeeded in attacking the Central Camp Police Station and over-running it. The attack began after midnight signalling the dawn of August 21. It was not just another attack. It heralded the beginning of what is undoubtedly a new and disturbing phase for the security establishment in the seven year long Eelam War Three.
Since declaring a unilateral ceasefire on Christmas eve, last year, and renewing it monthly until April, this year, Tiger guerrillas had refrained from major offensive action though the five month long period was used for three distinct purposes to recruit fresh cadres, train recruits and retrain serving cadres and re-arm by bringing in fresh stocks of weaponry. If they campaigned hard to woo the Government to accept their unilateral ceasefire, they had heeded a call by Norwegian facilitators to refrain from offensive action.
Hours after they ended the five month long unilateral ceasefire at midnight on April 23, security forces launched an onslaught on their positions south of the Jaffna peninsula. That was the failed "Operation Agni Khiela," (Rod of Fire). If that was intended to bolster the Government's bargaining position at the negotiating table, when the Norwegians brought Government representatives and the guerrillas together, it had the opposite effect. The colossal human and material losses were an embarrassment, both to the Government and the security establishment.
Needless to say the Norwegian facilitators were incensed by the move. So much so, the Government had to publicly declare it was appealing to Norway to continue their facilitatory efforts. Special Envoy, Erik Solheim, and Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Jon Westborg, were then praised for their "indefatigable endeavours." The Government had a message for the security establishment too no more offensive operations and no more aerial attacks.
The weeks that followed led to a distraction. Evidently unhappy over the role played by Special Envoy Solheim, the Government invited the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Thorbjorn Jagland, for talks. After his meetings with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, an official statement agreed to by both sides said "it was decided that the Government of Norway will henceforth participate at a high level to advance the peace process involving the LTTE."
If there was no advance at all in the Norwegian efforts, leave alone it being at a higher level, the course of events were to change after Police Chief, Lucky Kodituwakku, received a report dated June 27, from the Special Branch an intelligence arm coming directly under his purview. Its head, DIG D.S.C. Kombalavithana said in a two page report that LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had made plans to attack and recapture Jaffna town in the first two weeks of July. (Situation Report July 22).
He had even attached a map of Jaffna marking out the routes the guerrillas were to take for the attack.
In the absence of President Kumaratunga, who was away in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake ordered air raids by the Air Force on Tiger guerrilla positions in the north. The idea was to thwart a guerrilla thrust towards Jaffna town. These raids began on June 30.
On July 2, a statement issued by the LTTE declared " the Sri Lanka Government should bear total responsibility for the adverse consequences that might arise from its misplaced strategy of escalating the conditions of war " And on July 24, Black Tiger guerrillas launched the devastating attack on the SLAF airbase and the adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport. What followed is history. The reverberations caused by this attack on the nation's economy is being felt increasingly every day.
If this unprecedented attack made clear Tiger guerrillas were no longer committed to the undertaking they gave the Norwegians, of desisting from major offensive action whilst their facilitatory efforts were underway, there was more to come. The guerrillas made the security establishment believe the Katunayake incidents were the curtain raiser for a continued thrust to seize the Jaffna town. Whether it was a psychological operation or otherwise, an impression was created that an immediate thrust towards Jaffna was imminent. This was particularly through broadcasts made by the clandestine Voice of Tigers, heard in the Wanni and now in Jaffna too.
So much so, Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, and military top brass flew to Jaffna to inspect defensive positions and confer on how to counter any guerrilla attacks in the peninsula. (Situation Report August 19).
But the August 21 attack on the Central Camp Police Station made clear they were stepping up attacks on a new front. On the night of August 20, those at the police station were busy cleaning and oiling their weapons or tidying up the premises. The next morning, the Superintendent of Police in charge of the area was due for his twice yearly inspection. But Tiger guerrillas arrived earlier.
LTTE's leader for the east, Karuna, who had led many an offensive in the north co-ordinated the attack together with his lieutenants Rabat, Jeevan, Thaatha alias Jim Kelly and Ramesh. Leading the team was Asokan.
Whilst the main group of attackers focused on the Central Camp Police Station, three other groups engaged the satellite Police Posts. They were located at Bar Junction, 12th Junction (Eagle Post) and 11th Junction, simultaneously, with a view to cut off any re-inforcements arriving in the area. The post midnight attack caused panic. When radio communications with Central Camp were cut off, there were fears that there would be high casualties. Special Task Force Units moved into the area followed by Army units. It was at the crack of dawn that the picture began to unfold. The bodies of 12 policemen and two civilians lay in the area. Some who withdrew from their positions during the attack had returned only in the morning. The guerrillas had abducted four policemen, shot them and later handed over their bodies to the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) delegates. They were thereafter received by the Police.
After the attack, the retreating guerrillas escaped with tractor loads of weapons. They included not only the weapons the men were cleaning and oiling for the SP's inspection but also those in the armoury. Killing 15 policemen, two civilians and escaping with tractor loads of weapons, Tiger guerrillas now made clear they had stepped up their campaign to destabilise the east.
The attack was followed the next day (August 22) by the guerrillas triggering off a claymore mine at Nilaveli, 10 kilometres north of Trincomalee. It was meant for a Navy truck carrying a load of sailors but missed it and hit a civilian bus that was travelling behind. Of the 14 passengers aboard, eight were injured.
The very next day (August 23) the guerrillas mounted an attack on the Kokkutuduwai Army base, located on the coast south of Mullaitivu. This base is the only coastal military installation between Trincomalee and Jaffna and its fall would have allowed Tiger guerrillas continuous coastal mobility on that stretch. The guerrillas also carried out a simultaneous attack on the Janakapura camp, located inland, to prevent any re-inforcements being rushed. Seven soldiers were killed and nine more were reported missing in action. Eight guerrillas were also killed in the incident. The LTTE handed over the bodies of seven soldiers to the ICRC delegates in Kilinochchi yesterday.
LTTE radio intercepts yesterday revealed that 17 of its cadres had died during the two attacks. That included two "Majors," four "Lieutenants," eight regular cadres and three Eelapadai (Civilian force) members. Besides mortars, the LTTE had also used Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) during the attack. Intelligence authorities were yesterday trying to ascertain whether these were new MBRLs, part of weapons consignments smuggled in through the north east coast, early this year.
Police Chief Lucky Kodituwakku, received a strongly worded letter from Additional Director General of the Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII) T.V. Sumanasekera. He asserted that sufficient information that the Central Camp Police Station was targetted by the LTTE, was appropriately disseminated. He has asked for a full investigation to ascertain why no precautionary measures were taken to protect the Central Camp Police Station despite specific intelligence warnings.
Police Chief Kodituwakku would not only have to go into this aspect. He would also have to request the Commanders of the Army and the Air Force to probe why their own men, who took part in the weekly intelligence meetings, did not initiate any action or bring to notice of their superiors intelligence warnings about attacks on the Central Camp.
Since the Katunayake incidents, the intelligence community has come under severe criticism with some jockeying to bring in new faces and others canvassing to be appointed Intelligence Advisors to the Government. A smear campaign has also been launched to denigrate some, who are easily the best in Sri Lanka's intelligence community, working without the glare of publicity or patronage from political leaders. That included at least one top official who had won high acclaim from Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency during a lengthy training stint. He had also beaten others in his batch to come first.
The Sunday Times learnt that pressure moves have been made in this regard at various levels including to President Kumaratunga herself. In one instance, an intelligence officer based in an important Sri Lanka mission in Europe has been a strong backer for change in the state intelligence agencies and had spoken openly with his counterparts in the host country against senior officials of the local intelligence community.
Undoubtedly, there was no intelligence warning about attacks on the airbase and the Bandaranaike International Airport. But that is not a new phenomenon in the 18 year long separatist war. There have been many instances in the past where there have been no warnings. A few examples: September 7, 1978- Destruction of Avro aircraft by placing a time bomb, May 3, 1986: Blasting of Airlanka Tristar killing 16 passengers (13 foreigners) at Katunayake airport, July 11, 1992: Katupotha, Anuradhapura where a security forces detachment was overrun. One officer and 44 soldiers were killed. It was attacked again on December 12, 1992 where 18 soldiers were killed. The catalogue is too lengthy.
Many of the military debacles have been attributed to failure of intelligence. This is so to a great extent, but to attribute all blame on intelligence failure is to find a convenient scapegoat for the deficiencies and incompetence of the operational arm of the military. There is no better example of this than the Katunayake disaster.
In this instance, leaving intelligence aside, mere common sense should have made the defence establishment alive to the reality of a revengeful operation by the LTTE. Moreover, it was the month of Black July, an important month in the LTTE calendar. That the Air Force could well be the target as retaliation for the bombing of LTTE targets in the North was more than speculative. More so, against the hindsight of the June air raids, and July reprisal operations over the past years, the defence establishment should have been doubly ready and prepared for an LTTE operation.
That they were not so prepared is a cardinal offence. Now, the calamitous attack on the Central Camp follows in the wake of the Katunayake disaster. Here, there is clear evidence that prior intelligence of the attack was available, thus confirming that there are serious lapses in the execution of operations both at planning and field levels.
Thus, as it has been repeatedly reported in these columns, there appears to be a serious lacuna in communication and liaison between the intelligence and operational arms of the security forces. This has resulted in the tragic loss of lives, operational setbacks and enormous economic losses to the country.
That such a situation should have developed and tragically, worse still, that it has been and still appears to be tolerated, is also a cardinal offence, which in any responsible country would surely have seen heads roll. That situation uncorrected over the years of many military disasters has climaxed in the grave economic situation the country is facing today. That it should come to this is nothing less than sheer military and political negligence and incompetence. Unless corrected, even at this late stage, it will lead to national disaster.
As said earlier, to rest assured by blaming the intelligence agencies for not giving prior information has been the traditional excuse for all debacles earlier and is nothing but unmitigated irresponsibility. The effective co-ordination between the intelligence and operational arms of the security establishment is a fundamental command and control responsibility. No amount of excuses can shift this grave responsibility without which any defence organisation cannot function. Granted the intelligence agencies have had their failures, a lot of it perhaps, a matter that should have been corrected for good and timely intelligence is a priority requirement for any nation in peace or war. Yet the attribution of intelligence failures to mitigate operational disasters is often exaggerated. Good intelligence diminishes surprise, but even the best cannot prevent it altogether. The reliance on technical intelligence often obscures reality.
Increasing sophistication of technology inclines the intelligence community to place greater reliance on these techniques, diminishing the human factor. But in the end, it is unlikely that technology can replace the human factor. Human behaviour is not, and probably will never be, fully predictable. It is for this reason that the use of suicide bombers poses a deadly and unpredictable threat.
Technical intelligence can provide some types of effective intelligence, but how to gather intelligence of suicide bombers will continue to pose a dilemma, especially in the context of terrorism. Without a combination of the traditional human spy with advanced technical information, it will not be possible to monitor enemy action and intentions.
But what is most important is that however good intelligence is, without an effective mechanism to act upon it, the best of intelligence will be of no use. This is what appears to be the problem in Sri Lanka. It is timely that the entire intelligence and operational infrastructure be re-examined. For whatever reason, be it parochial, political or sheer incompetence the system has failed bringing about calamitous consequences on the nation.
The defence establishment should have expected the stepping up of operations in the Eastern province by the LTTE. Any appreciation of the situation in the three operational areas, the North, the Wanni and the East, leads to the inescapable deduction that the LTTE should dominate the Eastern province if it is to establish an overarching influence in its claimed Eelam. Of the other two operational areas, the North is stalemated with the Army confined to north of the Kilali-Eluthumadduval- Nagar Kovil line. The failure of "Operation Agni Khiela" has frustrated the expansion of the Army further south and more importantly any immediate hope of the domination of the strategic Elephant Pass. That the environs of Jaffna is under Government control would not be of major strategic concern to the LTTE militarily, at the moment anyway, given that they retain covert access to the populace which is not hostile to the long term political strategy of the LTTE.
The Wanni, except for Mannar and the land corridor to it from Vavuniya, which is the strategic base of the LTTE, is without challenge under their control. Any likelihood of a threat to the LTTE in the Wanni in their perception must be remote on an assessment of the current deployment and resources available to the security forces.
In that situation, consolidation of the LTTE power base in the east remains the obvious strategy. The Eastern province has been a concern to the LTTE. The tri-communal population without an assurance of the support of the Muslims makes the LTTE position not only weak but also vulnerable. It is in that context that the UNP Government cleared and secured the Eastern province. Since the People's Alliance strategy diminished the importance of the east, the province has been open country for both the LTTE and the security forces. The geo-physical and demographic features of the Eastern province make it a strategic plum both militarily and politically.
Hence, the shift of interest by the LTTE, now that they feel their position
is secure in the other theatres. That the Government did not anticipate
this fully, or if it did was half hearted in its operational strategy,
again raises the question of the effectiveness of the planning infra-structure
of Government and the cohesion between the intelligence and operational
arms of the defence establishment.
Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, in a message to his top brass has said "the Government has decided that an Air Wing capability for the Navy is not required at this juncture. Accordingly the Naval Air Unit will be disbanded and all its projected plans will be abrogated with effect from September 30."
Forming the nucleus of the Air Wing, touted by the former Commander of the Navy, Admiral Cecil Tissera, as the first step in developing a blue water Navy, was this pet project. A Sukhanya class Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessel (AOPV), built to a South Korean design in India, was purchased to be the first vessel for the blue water Navy. It was to carry Indian built Chetak helicopters on board.
Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Defence S. Medawawa led a three member delegation to India, early this year, to sign an agreement for the purchase of three Chetak helicopters, the French equivalent of the Alouette light helicopter. Each helicopter was to cost the Government US $ 1.675 million dollars, which it has now turned out, was more expensive than the price the Sri Lanka Air Force had paid to procure Mi-24 helicopter gunships. The contract for the three helicopters, ground handling equipment, ground support equipment, tools, spares and other items included involved a package of US $ 8.4586 million.
The Sunday Times learns that despite the contractual commitment, the Government has not been able to obtain the fleet of three helicopters apparently due to a policy shift in New Delhi over its sale to Colombo. But Navy officials claimed they had cancelled the order though a seven page contract for the deal had been wrapped up. But highly placed sources in New Delhi said there had been no cancellation since firm orders were placed.
Three retired Air Force personnel, two pilots and an engineer, recruited to the Navy and assigned equivalent Naval ranks, have been asked to retire. They were sent to New Delhi earlier for a three month long training stint.
The Air Wing project which has already cost the Navy millions of rupees, and left it with the burden of an Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessel, has been the subject of a heated controversy in Navy circles.
Vice Admiral Sandagiri, who succeeded Admiral Tissera, as Commander of the Navy, told a conference of top officers soon after assumption of office that he knew nothing about the Air Wing project. In other words, although he was Chief of Staff of the Navy, he had been kept in the dark.
One more chapter of how millions of rupees of public funds have been squandered on a non-viable project comes to a close on September 30. Like all other controversial projects or procurements, it will go into the limbo of forgotten things due to lack of both transparency and accountability. That is the high cost of a war for which the public are called upon to cough out to sustain, not to defeat an enemy but to enrich dealers, both in uniform and outside it.
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