war averted at Muhamalai
The four-year-long ceasefire paved the way for
the creation of two main gateways to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE) dominated Wanni.
One is at Omanthai for those passing Vavuniya, the last town under
control. The other is at Muhamalai, for those arriving from the
Jaffna peninsula. Both are located strategically along the A-9 Jaffna-Kandy
highway, separated from security forces checkpoints by stretches
of "no man's land."
| The LTTE checkpoint at Muhamalai
The two gateways alone, state intelligence agencies
have already disclosed, generate an income of more than Rs 30 million
a day to the LTTE by way of "taxes". Thanks to the Ceasefire
Agreement of February 2002, the vast swathe of land from the west
to the east provided the LTTE with the contours of a "parallel
government" of sorts. They set up their own "administrative
service, police, judiciary, taxation system, law courts and other
bodies." So much so, LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham
declared during Geneva peace talks in February that "we are
a nation in waiting."
Protagonists of the CFA argued, despite all that,
the truce was well worth it. There was no war and no body bags ended
up in the villages. Comforted by this thought, and believing that
peace had already arrived, they did little or nothing to ensure
a high level of preparedness for the security forces. No, not even
those who seized power screaming hoarse with patriotic zeal that
national security interests were in jeopardy. A nation is paying
for their follies. This is again clearly highlighted by two recent
One was the April 25 attack by a female suicide
bomber who infiltrated Army
Headquarters in an attempt to kill Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath
Fonseka. The other was the failed attempt in the north-eastern deep
seas to attack the passenger ferry Pearl Cruise II carrying 710
unarmed troops. If they refused to believe it earlier, they would
now know that whilst talking peace the LTTE had prepared for war,
a war where they want to inflict more damage both in human and material
terms than before.
|Armed policemen guard the body of a colleague
shot dead by Tiger guerrillas. The body lay at the Vanuniya
However, the guerrillas failed in these two major
attacks to accomplish their targets. On both occasions, it was bravery
that stood in the way. Corporal Ruwan Yakandawala, a motorcycle
outrider took the brunt of the suicide bomb explosion. That saved
the life of Lt. Gen. Fonseka. Two Navy
officers, 15 sailors and one Army soldier died whilst saving the
lives of 710 troops and their escorts. These two major incidents
together with other attacks notwithstanding the four-year-long ceasefire
made clear a low-intensity war had begun.
What prevents it from becoming a high-intensity
or an all out war? A section of the intelligence community still
believes that the LTTE is ill equipped, unprepared and therefore
unable to wage war. Perhaps they are poorly informed or wrongly
briefed. A discerning study of LTTE preparations during the ceasefire
would clearly confirm that the guerrillas have inducted fresh defence
supplies, recruited new cadres, acquired an air capability, put
through new training programmes and built a much stronger military
machine. In addition they have provided military training to civilians
to supplement their own strength.
What then is the divide between a low-intensity
and a "full-scale war"? Is the Government's restraint,
ordering troops to carry out only "limited" retaliatory
strikes in the aftermath of guerrilla attacks, one of the causes?
Therefore, does this mean the ongoing low-intensity phase will continue
even if the guerrillas, as is clear now, continue with more major
attacks? Undoubtedly the character of a new, all-out Eelam War IV
would be different from the previous phases. But the answer is a
'no'. A thin line, sometimes the mindset of those ready for combat,
is the divide between a low to high intensity war. A case in point
was an incident that took place near the Muhamalai defence lines
Other than the two gateways at Omanthai and Muhamalai,
positions held by security forces and Tiger guerrillas are divided
by their defence lines, again with a stretch of "no man's land"
in between. Nowhere are the two sides more close to each other than
the lines that extend eastwards from Muhamalai to Nagerkovil. At
some points they are eyeball to eyeball or within twenty metres.
For the guerrillas, an advance by land towards
Government-held Jaffna peninsula would mean breaching these defences.
Conscious of that importance, the security forces have fortified
their positions and evolved other counter measures. Thus the entry/exit
point at Muhamali assumes greater military significance.
It was around 5.30 p.m. last Tuesday when troops
in an Observation Post (OP), an elevated watch tower, observed that
more than 20 heavily armed guerrillas were taking up position. Soon,
small arms fire was directed at troops. It was followed by 81mm
mortars and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). A soldier on an OP
dropped to the ground with head injuries. He was later flown to
Colombo and is now under intensive care at the National Hospital.
According to Security Forces Headquarters (SFHQ)
sources in Jaffna, the attack was immediately brought to the attention
of Major General Sanath Karunaratne, General Officer Commanding
(GOC) the Army's 55 Division. He ordered immediate counter strikes.
Troops hit back using small arms, machine guns, 120 mm mortars and
122 mm howitzers. An intense battle, that seemed conventional in
character, had broken out. Alarm bells rang in the defence establishment
in Colombo. There were fears that the guerrillas had launched an
attack on Muhamalai defences to make incursions into the peninsula.
As heavy firing continued, these sources said,
an intelligence officer walked into the room of Maj. Gen. Karunaratne
to brief him on a guerrilla radio intercept. A guerrilla leader
at the rear was monitoring the actions of his men on the frontlines.
He seemed unaware of what was going on. When he raised queries,
he was told that troops had hurled abuse at their cadres and thrown
a grenade at one of their positions. The leader ordered the guerrillas
to concentrate their attack on the point from which the grenade
was thrown. He also told them to fire as long as the Army continues.
The battle continued for 40 minutes when Maj. Gen. Karunaratne,
the sources added, ordered his men to stop.
Some five to ten minutes later, the guerrilla
firing came to a halt. A grim silence befell the area. The decision
by Maj. Gen. Karunaratne to halt his troops from engaging the guerrillas
prevented a full-scale confrontation. Needless to say such a course
would have paved the war for an "all-out war." The next
day, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, still recuperating
at his bed in the Army Hospital, received a full brief of the incident
on the telephone from Maj. Gen. Karunaratne. Though still unable
to get to his office, Lt. Gen. Fonseka was in touch this week on
the telephone with most of his field commanders.
That does not mean that the travails of security
forces at Muhamalai are over. If it is peace during the day with
civilians entering or leaving the checkpoint, at night it was different.
On Wednesday night a soldier at a listening post made a costly mistake.
When a guerrilla on the opposite side raised a cry, he rose to see
what was going on. He was shot dead. Close upon midnight on Thursday,
troops observed groups of women cadres being deployed along the
They retaliated hours before dawn when they came
under RPG fire killing two guerrilla cadres. It turned out that
the additional cadres had been deployed that night to determine
mortar positions of the troops. They were firing RPGs to various
locations to observe from where mortar fire would originate. Firing
of RPGs at troop positions continued on Friday night.
Yesterday morning, a group of soldiers were busy
repairing a bunker along the Muhamalai defences. A guerrilla group
had noticed them. The troops came under RPG and mortar fire. Troops
retaliated. The security forces checkpoint at Muhamalai was immediately
closed for civilian movements from 8.45 a.m. Four CTB buses, 12
private coaches and 69 lorries were among a fleet of vehicles held
up. It was re-opened at 10 a.m. after the exchange of fire stopped.
If the security forces at Muhamalai are well fortified,
so are the Tiger guerrillas. This week they were further strengthening
their defences using civilian labour. This is prompted by fears
of a possible security forces advance into the Tiger guerrilla centre
of power, Kilinochchi and surrounding areas. Trees in the locality
have been felled and more concrete bunkers were coming up along
their defence lines. Intelligence sources say beyond the defended
localities of the guerrillas lay their artillery positions. They
had also deployed snipers on more locations. This week guerrilla
snipers shot dead an officer and two soldiers in Vavuniya area in
two separate incidents. One officer and soldier were from the Special
Forces Regiment. According to intelligence sources stocks of telescopic
sights smuggled in unchecked baggage through the Colombo Airport
during the early stages of peace talks were now being put to use.
The LTTE continued their low-intensity attacks both in the north
and east this week. A box story on this page gives one an idea of
how they continue unabated.
In this backdrop, around 7.30 p.m. last Wednesday
radar at the Air Force base in Vavuniya observed an unidentified
aircraft flying some 17 kilometres northwards. This was over Tiger
guerrilla dominated territory in the Wanni. Some analysts in the
Air Force believe this might have been a deliberate move by the
guerrillas to convey a message that their newly acquired air capability
was still intact.
After the May 11 confrontation in the deep seas
off Mullaitivu where Sea Tigers failed to attack the passenger ferry
Pearl Cruise II, the Air Force, for the first time, conducted air
attacks on LTTE targets in the Wanni. It was focused on the 1250
metre long LTTE airstrip located south east of the Iranamadu irrigation
tank. Contrary to official claims, the bombing raids on the airstrip
that evening failed to hit the runway or adjoining installations.
It was no fault of the Air Force.
The sorties were carried out during dusk and visibility
had remained poor. However, reports from Wanni said the bombs fell
within the so called high security zone of the LTTE. Though the
Air Force had planned to resume raids the next morning, President
Mahinda Rajapaksa had directed that no offensive action should be
carried out that day on account of Vesak.
According to foreign intelligence sources, the
LTTE is said to have acquired five light aircraft capable of a maximum
range of 600 nautical miles. This is at a speed of 200 knots at
altitudes up to 15,000 feet. These aircraft which include the already
identified Czech-built Zlin Z-143, these sources say, are capable
of carrying 250 kilogrammes of explosives. Though the LTTE does
not have the capability or the assets for air-to-air combat, these
sources point out, that the light aircraft could be used as a flying
bomb to attack targets in any part of the country. It is feared
that the LTTE could use aircraft to carry anything between 250 and
450 kilogrammes of explosives, these sources added.
However, the Government has examined perceived
threats arising from this situation and taken counter measures.
Such measures are now being further strengthened. Besides the Government,
India has also publicly expressed concerns over the LTTE acquisition
of air capability and the construction of the runway. This is in
view of threats posed to vital installations in the southern Indian
state of Tamil Nadu.
It was only last week that President Mahinda Rajapaksa
told me in an exclusive interview that his Government was firmly
committed to the ceasefire. However, he warned that his silence
should not be misconstrued as weakness and pledged to defend the
nation against any threats.
This week, LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham
declared in an interview with The Sunday Times that his organization
is also "seriously committed to peace and a negotiated settlement."
The full text of his interview appears on Page 5.
Mr. Balasingham admits a "low intensity conflict"
has developed and warns that it has a "dangerous potential
for further escalation." "Though conditions for an outbreak
of war are developing," he says "there is still a space
in which meaningful steps could be taken by the government to contain
the violence of the paramilitaries and the excesses of the armed
forces and create a congenial environment for de-escalation."
But he insists "I do not think Eelam War
IV has already begun." No doubt he is referring to a high intensity
war. Going by the escalating violence, such a war, as Mr. Balasingham
says, has the dangerous potential for escalation. It may only be
another major guerrilla attack or two away. But it would take more
than the Government of Sri Lanka to initiate meaningful steps to
resume peace talks. And that no doubt turns the spotlight on the
|Low-intensity conflict continues
|The low-intensity Eelam
War IV launched by the LTTE continues. Here are some of the
incidents in the north and east for just four days which shows
that attacks on security forces and police are continuing with
no signs of abatement:
- A group of Tiger guerrillas hurled a grenade and opened
fire at the Buddhist temple in China Bay, Trincomalee.
- A soldier of the Sri Lanka National Guard was Injured
when guerrillas hurled a grenade in the Batticaloa town.
- Troops fired at a security forces listening post at Parasankulam,
Vavuniya. LTTE directed small arms fire at the Navy Detachment
in Mutur. Troops retaliated.
- Later they observed a guerrilla body floating in a river
- A Police Special Task Force (STF) water bowser came under
LTTE gunfire at Komari in Pottuvil area in the Ampara district.
One STF commando was injured.
- An officer and two soldiers received minor injuries when
an LTTE cadre hurled a grenade at a strong point at Kokuvil
in the Jaffna district.
- A soldier was injured at Makiyapidi military detachment
in the Jaffna district.
- Tiger guerrillas exploded a claymore mine on a route
clearing patrol at Nelliady in the Jaffna district. They
also lobbed grenades and opened fire at another route clearing
patrol in the same area.
- Two civilians were injured when Tiger guerrillas lobbed
a hand grenade at an Army picket point at Anaipathi along
the Jaffna - Point Pedro Road.
- Two soldiers were wounded when Tiger guerrillas exploded
a claymore mine Sonkasalapaikkulam in Vavuniya.
- A Home Guard was killed and two policemen were injured
when guerrillas exploded a claymore mine at Tampalagamuwa
- Tiger guerrillas hurled grenades and fired at troops
Nallur, Jaffna. No one was hurt.
- Guerrillas exploded a claymore mine targeting STF personnel
engaged in route clearing work Along Pothuvil-Kalmunai Road
in the Ampara district.
- A soldier was injured when guerrillas lobbed a hand grenade
at a sentry point in Udupiddy, Jaffna.
- A security forces strong point came under guerrilla fire.
A soldier was injured. Guerrillas got away with two T-56
rifles, one Light Machine Gun a radio set and other items.