ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 42
Columns - Situation Report

LTTE shifts focus to north

  • Three officers, three soldiers killed, 23 injured in Tiger attack

By Iqbal Athas

Last week's scene in Kilinochchi - Civilians protest alleged human rights violations by the Government.
A Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) member, with his official vehicle parked on the road, watches school children taking part in a protest against alleged human rights violations by the Government.

As the Security Forces and the Police Special Task Force (STF) step up their offensive against Tiger guerrillas in the East, the contours of the Government's "war on terror" seem to be changing. Contrary to reports of large-scale ground operations, small groups are continuing to hunt down guerrillas. The only exceptions have been limited search- and-destroy missions jointly by the Security Forces and the STF. With little or no resistance, the Army has been successful in establishing two bases for the first time in Kadawana and Peraru, north of Trincomalee. In the Batticaloa district, with the re-capture of the coastal village of Vakarai, the focus shifted to the jungles of Toppigala. Here again, small groups are "softening up" targets and questions linger on whether an all-out battle would become necessary at all.

Going by official figures of the Army, since February 24 until early this week, offensive action in the Batticaloa district left 38 guerrillas dead, 34 wounded and seven captured. Of the number dead, according to the same official accounts, 28 guerrillas were killed at a location near Mavidivembu, east of Toppigala. This was when the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) conducted air raids on the base. The SLAF is now using both the Israeli-built Kfir interceptor jets and the Russian-built MiG-27 ground attack aircraft procured recently from a supplier in Ukraine.

The official casualty figures seem to reflect a changing ground reality. There appears to be infrequent "contact" between the small groups, including Special Forces and Commandos, with the Tiger guerrillas. On the other hand, recent intelligence accounts have not spoken of concentrated strengths of guerrillas in terrain dominated by them. To the contrary, they have reported increasing signs of guerrillas moving out of their locations. In other words, the guerrillas are allowing the small group hunt for them to spread and taking off from those locations. Besides gaining control of vast tracts of land, this will also make it relatively easy for the authorities to re-settle large number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from their homesteads. Fears of security and lack of means to sustain themselves are forcing them to remain in camps. When they do return to their homes, the prospect of the guerrillas returning to operate from within is very much a reality. Therein lies a fresh threat even after the east is brought under "total" government control.

A top Army official told a high level conference this week he expected the fleeing guerrillas to converge in the jungles of Toppigala. He noted that the guerrillas had already crossed to the western side of A-5 highway that runs through Batticaloa, Chenkalady to Kandy. Previously all their activities have been concentrated on the eastern part. That news would naturally be a boon to the Security Forces who have publicly proclaimed their next goal would be to capture Toppigala. The fact that the guerrillas are on the move leaving behind more ground for the Security Forces would mean vast tracts of land will come under Government control sooner than later. Thus it will give greater weightage to claims of the east coming under “total” control of the Government. But, are they all heading towards Toppigala? Influential sections of the state intelligence services believe otherwise.

They speak of strong indications that large numbers are being re-called to Wanni where war preparations are going on at a hectic pace. New recruits were being given training. Special groups tasked to attack specific targets were being put through practice runs with sand models. More pistol groups were being trained to take on VIP targets. Even whilst such preparations were under way, indications emerged on Friday that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were showing clear signs of shifting the fighting to the north.

On Friday night, the pro-LTTE Tamilnet website accused the Army of trying to advance into guerrilla dominated areas. A report said: "Hundreds of Sri Lanka Army troopers who advanced into Liberation Tigers territory Palamoddai, northwest of Vavuniya, were forced to hurriedly withdraw from the area, leaving behind military hardware as the Tigers put up stiff resistance against the SLA troopers between 12.00 and 3.00 pm., said LTTE's Military Spokesman, Irasiah Ilanthirayan. Four SLA troopers were killed and 20 wounded in the operation. However, the SLA said it suffered casualties when the LTTE attacked their positions.

"Wounded troopers were airlifted to the Polonnaruwa hospital. A similar SLA move was thwarted Thursday evening at Mullikulam along Vavuniya Mannar border, west of Palamoddai." The sequence of events, The Sunday Times learnt, was different. Tiger guerrillas succeeded in locating positions of the Tenth battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI) in the area. They directed 81 mm mortar fire on Friday. A Captain, two Lieutenants and three soldiers were killed and 23 others were wounded. This battalion is one of those brought under the newly created 57 Division of the Army with its headquarters in Vavuniya.

Therefore, was the motive of the LTTE a pre-emptive strike fearing a Security Forces advance or was it an attempt to provoke a retaliatory response? It is known that small groups operating in the area had accomplished several LTTE targets in the recent weeks. Whatever the reasons may be, there is no doubt that the LTTE action on Friday was offensive in nature and prompted the Security Forces to heighten counter measures. Such measures even extended to the Weli Oya sector after fears that some of the outlying villages were under threat from the guerrillas. Beginning dawn, the mortar attacks on the 10th battalion of the SLLI continued yesterday.

Besides training and other preparations in the Wanni, intelligence sources say, the LTTE was also busy enhancing its military procurements. One matter that has now come under investigation is the third party, suspected to be having North Korean links, which the LTTE used to procure a variety of Chinese-manufactured artillery shells and ammunition. They were found on board a cargo vessel which the Navy intercepted and destroyed in the deep seas off Dondra in the south coast on January 31.

Problems over procurements, the same sources say, began to plague the LTTE after one of its key men involved in the exercise, who was ailing, had to seek refuge in a foreign country. The section tasked for procurements was named the KP Department after his own name, Kumaran Pathmanathan. Since then, other LTTE leaders trying their hand at procurements, the sources said, fell for well laid out traps. Some instances have been when the head of the LTTE "international wing" identified by his nom de guerre Castro attempted to use a contact in the United States to obtain military hardware including Surface to Air Missile. The deal, it later turned out, was bared during a sting operation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Another is reported to be when a confidant of LTTE Political Wing leader, S.P. Tamilselvan, worked through a contact in Singapore. The latter in turn was to enlist the support of two Indonesians in an exercise that later ended in an FBI sting.

In the case of the latter, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement said last week that on March 8, Haji Subandi, a citizen of Indonesia, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, two counts of money laundering and attempted exportation of arms and munitions. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement quoted US Attorney for the District of Maryland, Rod J. Rosenstein as telling Court: "We are committed to using all available legal tools to prevent terrorism, including undercover operations targeting people who attempt to obtain military weapons in violation of American law.

"Special agent in charge (SAC) William D. Chase, of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Baltimore Field Office said, "The disruption of the supply chain of this organization should reassure the public that the U.S. Government is committed to dismantling terrorist groups worldwide. The FBI will continue to work to prevent any person from using the United States to raise funds or procure arms to commit acts of terrorism".

"According to the plea agreement, from April to September 29, 2006 Subandi and Erick Wotulo conspired with others to export state-of-the-art firearms, machine guns and ammunition, surface to air missiles, night vision goggles and other military weapons to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) operating within Sri Lanka, to be used to fight against Sri Lankan government forces.
"The conspirators contacted an undercover business located in Maryland about the sale of military weapons. Subandi and Wotulo aided in the acquisition and proposed delivery of military technology to the Tamil Tigers by requesting price quotes and negotiating the purchases. Subandi sent an itemized list of 53 military weapons, including sniper rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers that he wanted to acquire for the Tamil Tigers.

"On June 7, 2006, Subandi e-mailed the undercover business that Tamil Tigers is a terrorist organization and is "sealed off by the U.S. government and the EU countries as terrorists". In July, a conspirator met with undercover agents in Baltimore to inspect and test-fire some of the weapons. "Central to the plan to acquire arms and munitions for the Tamil Tigers was the international wire transfer on August 2, 2006, of $250,000 into an undercover bank account in Maryland. This transfer was a down payment for the arms, and the conduct is reflected in the money laundering charge contained in count three of the superseding indictment. An additional $452,000 payment was transferred on September 28, 2006 for the arms.

"In September 2006, Subandi repeatedly met with undercover agents in Guam, and discussed current and future sales of weapons and other technology to the Tamil Tigers and other customers. He was arrested on September 28, 2006. "On September 24, 2006, Subandi, Rinehard Rusli and Helmi Soedirdja contacted undercover agents to acquire monocular night vision devices and a holographic weapons sight from the United States to the Indonesia. On August 31, 2006, Rusli and Soedirdja transmitted $2,950 from Indonesia to the United States to obtain the items, which contain military technology that cannot be exported without a license or written authorization from the State Department.

Subandi, Rusli and Soedirdja arrived in Guam from Indonesia on September 21, 2006, and subsequently met with undercover agents to examine the night vision devices. They also discussed the future acquisition of additional military use technology items. Satisfied with the night vision devices and holographic weapon sight, Rusli and Soedirdja placed the items in their luggage and travelled to the airport in Guam to return to Indonesia. ICE agents detained them at the airport and the devices were recovered from their luggage. Subandi stayed in Guam to attend to matters relating to the arms acquisition for the Tamil Tigers.

"Wotulo, 59, a citizen of the Republic of Indonesia, and a retired Indonesian Marine Corps General, pleaded guilty on February 23, 2007, to conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization and money laundering. He faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison for conspiracy to provide material support and a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for money laundering. U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake has scheduled Wotulo's sentencing for May 25, 2007at 10 a.m.

"Rinehard Rusli, 34 and Helmi Soedirdja, 33, both citizens of Indonesia, pleaded guilty to attempting to illegally export arms and money laundering on January 30, 2007. They face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, followed by five years of supervised release and a $500,000 fine for money laundering and 10 years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release and a $1,000,000 fine for attempted exportation of arms. U.S. Districrt Judge Catherine C. Blake has scheduled their sentencing for April 27, 2007 at 11 a.m."

Amidst these developments, surprising enough, a handful in the security establishment claim the LTTE had lost its capability to wage war. This is based on the offensive actions of the Security Forces in the recent past. Whether this is based on any hard fact or they have begun to believe in their own propaganda remains to be seen. But, quite clearly, the LTTE is shifting the focus of fighting to the northern theatre. The coming weeks, ahead of the National New Year, will show how the events will unfold.

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