ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 47
Columns - Situation Report

More war on the cards

  • LTTE still active in east despite high-pitched propaganda of liberation
  • Both sides make strategic moves for major battles in north
  • Govt. launches offensive against foreign diplomats on human rights issues

By Iqbal Athas

Army and Police personnel inspect the scene of a LTTE claymore bomb explosion at Irattaperiyakulam in Vavuniya this week. The explosion came immediately after Tiger guerrillas triggered off a grenade. A soldier was killed in the incident and two more were wounded. Photo: Ranjith Jayasundara

With the Avurudhu festivities over, the focus turns once more to the battlefields of the North and East where the undeclared Eelam War IV is now under way. In the East, contrary to all the official claims, a fuller control of the province by the Security Forces is yet to be achieved. Though they have dislodged Tiger guerrillas from some areas, causing serious casualties both in human and material terms, there is still resistance from many pockets. This is particularly in the Batticaloa district. Though relatively to a lesser degree, it is also prevalent in the districts of Trincomalee and Ampara.

The ground realities are covered by the thick fog of high pitched propaganda. Yet, a clear pattern of the intentions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is discernable. The guerrillas have resorted to a ruse of concentrating in one particular area to be ousted by the Security Forces. In hopping from one to another area, they have managed to have the troops spread out considerably.

This task is no doubt daunting to field commanders and their troops. But they are pushing ahead with grit and determination. On the one hand, they have to secure over 150,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) until Government officials are successful in re-locating them. If caring for the IDPs including their sustenance is an economic burden for the authorities, for the troops, it means added tasks. To that extent, their hunt for guerrillas on search-and-destroy missions has somewhat slowed down. The LTTE, it has become clear, has left a considerable presence in the East to keep the troops under check whilst drawing out most of its cadres to the North to meet a Security Forces offensive.

It is these guerrillas who made two abortive attempts to mount large scale attacks on Security Forces detachments in the East. One was the March 21 attempt on Mavidivembu and the other, the suicide cadre attack on Chenkaladi on March 27. Reports of LTTE plans to carry out further attacks have received the attention of the Security Forces. Among them was one that spoke of an infiltration of guerrillas to areas around Manampitiya, Valachchenai, Sittandy and Chenkaladi to prevent further incursions by troops. Another is reports of guerrilla intelligence cadres conducting reconnaissance on the movement of senior Security Forces officials in the area. An intelligence source said attacks to drive home the point that the guerrillas were still present in the coming weeks cannot be ruled out.

Most of the guerrilla cadres in the East, it has now become clear, have been shifted to areas north of Vavuniya. This is because the LTTE fears that a major Security Forces advance will come from across the defence lines that straddle the Entry-Exit point at Omanthai, now the only gateway to guerrilla held Wanni. Some recent incidents have forced the LTTE to intensify counter measures.

Just days ahead of the Avurudhu, a group of soldiers who advanced into a guerrilla held area north of the Madhu Church were ambushed. The dead bodies of seven soldiers, all in uniform, placed on a trailer driven by a tractor was taken along the streets of Kilinochchi for public viewing. Their weapons including Light Machine Guns, Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) launchers and stacks of ammunition were also put on display. In the aftermath of this incident, a group of eight highly-skilled soldiers who ventured to attack a guerrilla outpost were reported missing. Authorities fear they may have been captured.

In the wake of these developments, the guerrillas have sealed off all points from which they suspect the Security Forces will make an advance. For this purpose, they have recruited civilians, some of them reportedly forcibly, to monitor roads. They have also been tasked with preventing any civilians from moving out to Government controlled areas. According to last week's estimates, over 50,000 Internally Displaced Persons have left guerrilla-dominated areas and taken up shelter in temporary camps in Government-controlled areas. This has caused concerns for the security authorities. Some of them include guerrilla cadres who have reportedly deserted ranks. Yet others are said to include cadres who are suspected to be infiltrators. A thorough screening process is now under way to ascertain their correct identities.

LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had detailed some of his top men to supervise both military and civilian measures between the areas north of Mannar and Omanthai. Three weeks ago, LTTE intelligence wing leader Pottu Amman, Political Wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan, military leaders Sornam and Balraj were among those who had visited guerrilla strong points. Residents fleeing the area have told Security Forces that the team had supervised casualty evacuation methods using heavy vehicles, double cabs, tractors and vans. Female guerrilla cadres tasked with nursing casualties have also been located in houses seized from some civilians. These and other information prompted Security Forces to warn troops that guerrillas wearing troop uniforms may infiltrate the area to carry out attacks. The LTTE team had also addressed civilians groups to advise them how to react during a Security Forces offensive. Some of them had also been given specific tasks.

The LTTE has launched a blood collection campaign and called upon civilians to donate. This is for the needs of casualties they may incur during confrontations with troops. The guerrillas have also established High Frequency communication points at several locations ahead of the defence lines. Forced conscription has prompted teachers serving in the Wanni to ask the Governor of the North to transfer them out to schools in other areas. But their physical movement will still be impeded by the LTTE banning them from leaving. Civilians are also being used in large numbers to clear roads and by roads in and around Mullaitivu, Puthukudiyirppu and adjoining areas. This is for fear of infiltration and attack by the Army's Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs). Omanthai and Madhu areas have been infiltrated by guerrilla intelligence cadres.

Contrary to official claims, The Sunday Times learnt that Tiger guerrilla aircraft had conducted an unknown number of flights over the Wanni. According to a highly-placed Air Force source, one such flight was located over Padaviya in the Weli Oya sector. Intelligence sources also said there was at least one occasion when a reported air to ground firing practice had been carried out. However, independent verification of this claim is not possible.

After a study from September to October 2002, a United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) team recommended that the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) should immediately purchase Night Vision Goggles (NVG), first for helicopter, then airlift and finally fighter aircrews. NVG training should be thorough and begin upon receipt of equipment. It said subsequent flying operations should shift predominantly to night hours, until the SAM (Surface to Air Missile) threat is significantly reduced.

The USPACOM report noted: "The Man Portable Air Defence Surface to Air Missile (MANPADS) threat to the SLAF is formidable, making daylight flying extremely hazardous. In order to successfully conduct an air campaign, the SLAF must fly combat missions at night. Currently, some SLAF Mi-24s are equipped with very expensive Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) system. One such Mi-24 pilot stated he thought the FLIR was more expensive than the rest of the aircraft. Some SLAF aircrews have flown with older NVG systems, but without proper training. This has led to apprehension and misunderstanding regarding NVG flying in the SLAF."

Even if the threats from Manpads during the undeclared Eelam War IV have remained non existent so far, if the USPACOM report was acted upon, the SLAF would have acquired considerable experience at flying combat missions at night. Perhaps the March 26 air attack on the SLAF air base in Katunayake could have been interdicted, if not before, at least after the attack. USPACOM report is just one of many that are gathering dust. It is likely that the same fate will follow the findings of the inquiry into the attack itself unless there is a firm commitment by the Government to deal with those responsible for the lapses.

The demonstration of Tiger guerrilla air strike capability since they bombed the Air Force base at Katunayake has led to a series of counter measures. Some of them cannot be spelt out due to security considerations except for the fact that such commitments will entail more financial expenditure. Comments on the need for transparency on such procurements or highlighting corrupt and irregular practices or activities that accompany such deals are now increasingly difficult. Those making such exposures are branded acolytes of terrorists or traitors. A strong deterrent indeed, at least for those who want such exposures to remain "a highly classified secret" with only their own views being propounded publicly. Alas, it is public funds that go to make the procurements and to fight the Tiger guerrillas.
This week I was asked by some members of the diplomatic community dealing with defence whether I knew from where the Government had obtained UB 44 radars. They were not sure about its existence. Hence, they were looking for the manufacturer and the price of the equipment that had already been installed. It turned out to be a joke. Forty five communication sets have been issued to members of the Army's newly created Air Cell to locate suspicious aircraft. Whilst the Officer-in-Charge held one, the other 44 units had been distributed to men deployed in the front lines of the Wanni. They were given instructions to radio their OIC upon sighting any suspicious aircraft. A witty young officer had dubbed it as the UB 44 radar - UB meaning Uda Balana (or Looking Up) and 44 being the number of sets given to troops.

These developments come in the backdrop of renewed efforts to explore whether there is still room for the resumption of peace talks. Norway's Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Hans Brattskar will arrive in Kilinochchi tomorrow for talks with LTTE Political Wing leader, S.P. Thamilselvan. Since March 5, this year, this is his second visit. On the last occasion Mr. Thamilselvan was to declare that the LTTE's silence should not be construed to mean weakness. Norwegian Embassy officials in Colombo insist that the visit is routine and should not be cause for any hype that peace talks were round the corner. "As has been the practice, Ambassador Brattskar is visiting Kilinochchi for routine consultations with the LTTE. He will naturally ascertain their views on a number of issues," an embassy spokesperson said.

Some senior officials of the UN are also in Kilinochchi. They include Frederick Lyons, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Co-ordinator and Amin Awad, Resident Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner (UNHCR) for Refugees. Though their main task is to secure two local employees imprisoned by the LTTE for allegedly allowing civilians to flee the area, they are also expected to assess the LTTE mood in respect of peace talks.

The UN agencies in Colombo are seeking the help of the LTTE to facilitate the movement of 5,000 tons of items (tents, construction material etc) to Jaffna. This is for UN-backed projects in the area. The LTTE had declared it would attack ships moving between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai and warned civilians not to travel in them. This comes amidst intelligence warnings that the LTTE is making plans to attack naval movements between these two ports in the east and the north respectively. A major strike, the LTTE believes, would force the Government to re-open the A-9 Kandy-Jaffna highway. This is by re-establishing the Entry-Exit point at Muhamalai, the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula. However, senior Security Forces officials discount this possibility. They hold the view that attacks at sea would only lead to LTTE heaping more problems on themselves and the people in the Wanni. It will lead to a halt or slowing down of merchant shipping.

Confirming such fears is an LTTE "decree" imposing a ban on fishing in the seas off Mullaitivu. Some selected areas, all of these closer to the coast, have been allotted to hand picked fishermen. In addition, Sea Tiger deployment in the northern-eastern coast, particularly in the seas off Nagerkovil, Vettilaikerni, Kandalkadu and Chalai are reported to have been strengthened, according to intelligence sources.

In this regard, an incident of disturbing significance took place early this week within the Trincomalee port. It related to an attempt to blow up a cargo vessel that had remained berthed near a cement complex owned by a private company. Contrary to official claims, the nature of the detections made has caused serious concern. For obvious reasons, one cannot elaborate on the findings or what the consequences would have been if the plot to explode the vessel succeeded. Such an act, coming as it does after the guerrilla air attack on the Air Force base in Katunayake, would have had damaging consequences politically, militarily and economically.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has made clear that his Government was not averse at all to the conduct of peace talks. However, he is specific that such talks would not have any bearing on the Government's "war on terror." He has said that the Security Forces and Police would continue to fight Tiger guerrilla terrorism. During his talks with the Secretary of State for Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisco Bertone, after an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, President Rajapaksa had re-iterated this position of the Government.

Yet, for the Government there are a number of other related issues that need to be resolved. One is the ongoing tussle with Amnesty International over its campaign with balls at the ongoing World Cup series in the West Indies. The balls marked "Sri Lanka play by the rules" launched by AI has earned the Government's ire so much that President Rajapaksa has chosen not to reply a letter written to him by Irene Khan, the head of the organization. Instead, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in the United Kingdom Kshenuka Seneviratne has been called upon to write to the AI head. President Rajapaksa's snub over Ms Khan's letter, described by Presidential aides as "haughty" has virtually shut the door for a dialogue between the Government and the Amnesty International.

Another is the remarks made by Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella at a news conference warning European envoys not to interfere in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. A group of EU envoys are now awaiting the return to Colombo of Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona to seek clarification officially, at whom the references were made.

The Sunday Times has learnt that the references were pointedly at one EU Ambassador who, it is alleged, has on numerous occasions "interfered in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka." His conduct has been reported to Government leaders in a number of intelligence reports. In addition, alleged disparaging remarks made by him about Government leaders and relatives of President Rajapaksa at cocktail parties and other public functions have also been reported. At first, the Government had chosen to deliver a strong warning to the diplomat concerned.

On a previous occasion when an informal warning was given by a Presidential Advisor, it is claimed, that he apologized and assured there would be no repetitions. After the second warning, if there were to be repetitions, there was a Government move to declare the diplomat persona non grata. Any further action now will be in the hands of President Rajapaksa, who returns to Sri Lanka today from a four-day official visit to Italy. The diplomat concerned was not available for comment. He is reported to be on a month's home leave and his comments therefore could not be obtained.

Despite all the talk of peace talks, the prospect for such an event is fading daily if it has not already faded away. Ground preparations make very clear there is more war on the cards in the weeks ahead.

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