ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 04
Columns - Situation Report  

Heavy casualties as war intensifies

  • President meets Solheim in Geneva, wants commitment from Prabha
  • Recruitment of 50,000 more troops to continue war; Service Chiefs to be elevated
  • Troops clear more parts of the East, but heavy battles in the north

By Iqbal Athas

The Wanni

For many reasons than one, the ongoing undeclared Eelam War IV is assuming increasingly greater significance. In Geneva, last week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told Norway's peace facilitators that the Government's military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would continue. It could only be halted if their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, pledged to cease violence and declared he was willing to talk peace.

His remarks came during a meeting with Erik Solheim, Minister for International Development and the most important player in the Sri Lankan peace process. He met Mr. Rajapaksa together with Special Envoy Jon Hanssen Bauer and three Norwegian officials at a suite in the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. Weeks earlier, Norway had sought this meeting.It was Mr. Solheim who raised the question - what does the Government of Sri Lanka now want Norway to do?

President Rajapaksa replied, "I do not want to pursue a military solution. I want to talk with the LTTE without any pre-conditions. Velupillai Prabhakaran must convey his moves and not others." He made clear if there was an assurance from the LTTE leader that guerrilla attacks would cease, the Government would follow suit. He urged Norway to continue its efforts to bring the guerrillas to the negotiation table. He also took the opportunity to express his displeasure over how the Sri Lankan delegation had been treated when they were last in Oslo. He alleged that whilst they were largely confined to their rooms, members of the LTTE delegation have had what he called a field day.

President Rajapaksa did not favour an immediate visit to Sri Lanka by Special Envoy Jon Hanssen Bauer. For many weeks, Norway had wanted to ascertain both from the Government and the LTTE their respective stances over the peace process. After the Geneva meeting, sounding out the LTTE, it was felt, would have helped discern their current position. The idea was to ascertain whether there was "even a remote window of opportunity," said a diplomatic source.

President Rajapaksa was of the view that Norway should make contact with the LTTE leadership from Oslo since a visit at this juncture would not be opportune. Even if he did not say so, the Government would have found it difficult to facilitate such a visit in the coming weeks. There was heightened military activity in southern parts of the Wanni, particularly west of the A-9 highway. It would have necessitated the suspension of such activity, a move that would have drawn protests from military commanders. On the other hand, if the President was awaiting word from Mr. Prabhakaran, it seemed unlikely. He was too busy with war preparations too.

The Rajapaksa-Solheim dialogue came ahead of the meeting of the Donor Co-chairs of the peace process in the Norwegian capital of Oslo tomorrow (Monday) and Tuesday. This meeting by officials of the United States, Japan, member countries of the European Union and Norway is to take stock of developments in Sri Lanka. Though Indian officials from New Delhi were invited, their envoy in Oslo is now expected to attend the meeting as an observer. US Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher, Japan's Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi, Andreas Michaelis, Director-General representing the EU Presidency, and James Morran of the European Commission will take part. An official statement by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry said "Norway does not intend to make any public statements after the Co-Chairs meeting."

West Batticaloa

In his first dialogue with Norway's peace facilitators after a break of over a year, President Rajapaksa, has made it unequivocally clear the war on the LTTE will continue. This is not withstanding his assertion that he was not committed to a military solution. In reality, at least for the moment, the clarification of his Government's position leaves Norway with only "remote control diplomacy." The peace facilitator has heard the Government of Sri Lanka in Geneva and not in Colombo. And the President has told them they could hear the LTTE by making contacts from Norway. A visit to Sri Lanka has thus been stalled.

In reality, Norway's peace facilitator role has been, at least for now, temporarily confined to outside the shores of Sri Lanka. Perhaps the only exception is its diplomatic mission in Colombo. Added to that, the second arm of the peace facilitator mechanism, the role of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) has also become curtailed. The SLMM has declared it would no longer issue rulings. Though not expressly required by the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002, they have been giving such rulings. This was when incidents were too few and the ceasefire was more effective.

"This is mainly because of the extended number of incidents. We cannot pretend to know every one of them," Thorfinnur Omarsson, media spokesperson for the SLMM told The Sunday Times. "This temporary move, however, did not mean the SLMM will not monitor the ceasefire. We will cover the incidents, have them in our database and issue our own reports," he added. The spokesperson insisted that the decision not to issue rulings was made by the SLMM and not at the instance of anyone in the Government.

By SLMM's own declaration, incidents have risen so much that they find it difficult to keep track of them. An undeclared war has become more potent than the three previous declared phases - Eelam War I, II and III. In the recent weeks, billions of rupees worth of orders have been placed with a number of countries for military hardware, mostly those with offensive capability. The strength of three armed forces is to be raised by 50,000. Troops are being trained how to cope with advanced weapons including a variety of missiles. War preparations are thus widening. The Government has officially declared that even the Ceasefire Agreement was under review though no follow-up action has come forth.

It was only last week that a delegation led by Jayantha Wickremasinghe, Chief Executive Officer of the state owned Lanka Logistics & Technologies Limited, returned from Russia after a procurement mission. Other members were Air Vice Marshal Prashantha de Silva, Director, Aeronautical Engineering in the Sri Lanka Air Force and Flt. Lt. N. Ekanayake. The visit has been arranged by Sri Lanka's Ambassador in Russia, Udayanga Weeratunga. In Moscow, they visited the MiG-29 factory, Ulan Ude, the manufacturers of Mi-17 helicopters and met with representatives of Rosboronoexport - the state trading arm. They also visited Ukrinmash (in Ukraine), the company that sold the controversial MiG-27 bombers. There have been allegations of corrupt practices over this deal. The tour ended with a visit to Lugansk (410 plant) where an Antonov 32 transport plane overhaul facility is located. Out of the Air Force fleet, only one AN 32 is now said to be operational.

The Government wanted to go ahead with the procurement of five MiG-29 aircraft including a UB trainer. This was purportedly on the grounds that they were needed to phase out the MiG-27s that were taken delivery of only in December, last year. In the light of disclosures in The Sunday Times (Situation Report) and after the Opposition raised issue in Parliament, there is now re-thinking on this massive deal. The Government is to drop the procurement of MiG-29s and is now examining a cheaper equivalent. But other procurements and services from Russia are still in the pipeline.

Besides Russia, other countries with which deals have been made or are in the making include Bulgaria, China, Israel and Pakistan. A deal for the Navy with Bulgaria has been delayed due to lengthy procedures laid down by the European Union. Bulgaria became a member of the EU on January 1, this year. Sri Lanka is required to meet the criteria set by the EU to facilitate an export licence before Bulgaria is able to supply the items required.

The armed forces have embarked on a programme to enhance their strength by 50,000. The Army will recruit 25,000 more whilst the Navy will recruit 15,000 and the Air Force 10,000. Each service arm has formed its own Co-ordinating Committee to monitor the recruitment process and to ensure the targets set are achieved. They will meet periodically to review the progress.

The Sri Lanka Army now has an approved cadre of over 100,000. That strength, at least on paper, exceeds the strength of the British Army. However, Since January 1, 2005 until April 20, 2007, Army records reveal that a total of 93 officers and 10,060 other ranks have deserted their posts. Some availed themselves of periodic general amnesties. The last general amnesty from January 20 to February 12 this year saw a total of 3979 (2758 regulars and 1221 volunteers) return to service. Added to these are the vacancies caused by troops killed or left out of battle due to injuries.

Enhancing the strength of the Army has drawn mixed reactions from serving senior officers. Some are of the view that existing battalions, with some exceptions, are under strength. Whilst the ideal strength was 855 troops per battalion, there were some with a strength of 400 to 500 troops. Hence, they were of the view that depleted battalions should be merged and made full strength to ensure the maximum utilisation of resources. But others held a different view.

Though depleted, allowing the battalions to remain that way, they argue, enabled them (though small in number) to obtain their entitlements. More importantly, it also means an increase in the number of officer cadres thus throwing open the doors for rapid promotions. When the recruitments are complete, the rank of the Commander of the Army could rise from Lieutenant General to a four star General. Similarly, there will be an elevation in equivalent ranks in the Navy and the Air Force.

It is against this backdrop of greater militarization that military action is being intensified both in the North and the East. The focus of such action in the North in the recent weeks is the Wanni region, areas ahead of the defended localities of the Security Forces west of the Omanthai entry-exit point. They had in fact re-adjusted their Forward Defence Lines (FDL) further to the front from their original position.

On June 2, the 56 Division (four battalions) and 57 Division (seven battalions) launched a limited pre-dawn operation to seize more terrain. The general areas of Villatikulam, North and North West of the village of Kalmadu (already under Security Forces control) were the scenes of fierce battles.

By 8 a.m. that day, Tiger guerrillas launched a counter attack. Groups of guerrillas confronted the troops almost head on. Heavy fighting continued for over seven hours. Troops were forced to make a tactical withdrawal. Later that evening, the guerrillas fired 130 mm artillery. More than 800 of the Army's own 130 mm artillery shells were destroyed after one of them fell at a storage area south east of Pompeimadu. It led to deafening explosions and a massive bonfire. During the fighting, a group of guerrillas made an attempt to infiltrate the defence lines. Four of them were shot dead. Sporadic fighting in the area has continued in the past several days. Troops are making repeated efforts to move into the area. They are meeting with heavy resistance.

Security Forces were tight lipped about their own casualties. The Sunday Times has learnt from highly placed Army sources that five officers and 67 soldiers were killed. A further two officers and 24 soldiers are declared missing in action. Twenty officers and 298 soldiers were wounded in action. These sources claimed that 800 guerrillas were killed and a further 700 were wounded. The claims of guerrilla casualties, no doubt, are on the higher side.

Adding statistics of claimed guerrilla deaths as well as injuries in the recent months would have surpassed the numbers military top brass give as the total strength of the LTTE. Independent verification of guerrilla casualty figures is not possible. Among the items the Army lost was an armoured Buffel troop carrier that had moved to evacuate casualties, a Jeep, arms and ammunition. A 152 mm heavy artillery gun was damaged.

In the East, since the re-capture of Vakarai the Army had continued their operations until areas astride the A-5 Maha Oya-Chenkaladi Road were brought under Government control. Another operation to seize areas in and around Baroni’s Cap or Thoppigala - Narakamulla began on June 8. Before the crack of dawn that day, commandos ventured into guerrilla-held area to launch attacks on their camps. Some of the camps were captured and later destroyed. By 7.30 a.m. ahead of the villages of Panjimarathadi and Narakamulla, the guerrillas launched fierce counter attacks. By evening troops were forced to make a tactical withdrawal to their original positions north of Rugam.

The next day troops fired artillery at guerrilla positions. It drew retaliatory fire. In the days that followed, they gradually advanced to encompass the area. Bitter fighting continues. Although the original guerrilla strength in the area was said to be around 400, the numbers had dwindled to just over 200 this week - an indication that the guerrillas were withdrawing despite a siege of sorts. At least four guerrillas who surrendered have told the Security Forces how unknown soldiers and members of the Karuna faction, who were held prisoner had been killed by the guerrillas. A prelude to an ultimate withdrawal has also seen the guerrillas trying to step up pressure on the Security Forces. However, they feel the re-capture of the areas, the accomplishment of their aim, is only days away.

In the fighting 15 soldiers have been killed. Six officers and 142 soldiers have been wounded, according to highly placed Army sources. These sources claimed 400 guerrillas were killed and 100 more were wounded. Here again the number is on the higher side. If past guerrilla casualties in the East were added to these figures, it would have exceeded the guerrilla strength there. Independent verification of guerrilla casualties is not possible. The LTTE has in the recent years been playing down its casualty figures. This is where the axiom that truth is the first casualty of war becomes relevant.

At Karadiyanaru, south east of the areas where heavy fighting is now under way, commandos of the Special Task Force (Police) seized a desk top computer used by a senior guerrilla cadre. It was to make some interesting revelations. Commandant of the STF, Nimal Lewke, DIG, told a high level security conference this week that a number of names of those helping the LTTE were found in the computer records. Also found were the names of journalists dealing with the LTTE including some of them from the state media.

The name of a middle aged person from the south, now running a shop in the Welikanda area, has also transpired. This person is said to have worked in the staff of a senior Cabinet Minister who is now closely associating himself with the peace process. There were also records of artillery and ammunition stocks. The regular conference was held to assess the security situation.

It was not only Government leaders, bureaucrats and military top brass who were pre-occupied with security concerns this week. So were some of the country's aid donors. Though Japan's Special Envoy to the peace process, Yasushi Akashi, declared after his visit to Colombo last month there would not be any cut in aid, Tokyo has begun an assessment of fresh aid requirements. Japan is Sri Lanka’s largest aid donor. A delegation from the Japanese Treasury and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in Colombo for this purpose. At a conference at the Treasury, Brigadier Upul Perera, Director Operations at Army Headquarters gave them a briefing on the security situation. Several probing questions followed. One was the closure of the Bandaranaike Internatio-nal Airport during nights. It was Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera who announced that it would be open for night flights from next month. It has now been decided that the flight ban from 10.30 p.m. to 4 a.m. would be lifted from July 1.

Another visitor was John Dennis, Additional Director for Asia in Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His mission was also to ascertain latest developments in Sri Lanka including opportunities for peace initiatives. This is in the wake of outgoing Prime Minister, Tony Blair’s plans to play the role of a peace broker after retirement. He wants to include Sri Lanka’s case among conflicts where he wants to undertake a mediatory role.

In the wake of stepped up offensives by the Security Forces both in the North and the East, the LTTE appears to have gone into a defensive posture. Several measures to stall a possible advance by troops into guerrilla held areas in the North have been taken. This is by no means an indication that they will cease to play offensive roles. Measures to disrupt normal life in the City by attacking military targets are very much a possibility. This is in addition to threats posed to security installations and military top brass in the North in particular. State intelligence agencies warn that small group attacks, as against conventional type of assault on targets, were being planned. The LTTE has also begun to face a problem of forced conscripts deserting ranks.

Large quantities of anti-tank mines were being planted in areas facing Security Forces FDLs. In the past months, there has also been a marked change in what symbolises a guerrilla cadre – the glass cyanide capsule worn around their necks like a pendant with a black cord. Upon capture, they were known to bite the capsule resulting in instant death. They have now begun to increasingly use a new device - an explosive laden suicide belt. There is a new rationale for its use. Upon capture, detonating the belt results not only in the death of the cadre but also those who capture them.

Whilst stepping up the military offensives in the North and the East, the defence establishment is now devising new ways and means of heightening their publicity drives. This is particularly in the light of political developments that have generated adverse publicity and thus given them a poor public image. Top rungers in the defence establishment believe fresh initiatives to project the "vast military gains" would reverse this situation. One such measure is to brief members of the clergy representing important temples in the country. Military top brass are to give them a full briefing next week on successes in the North and East and the plans that have gone in so far to "defeat" the LTTE.

The idea is to get them to go back to their towns and villages and tell the public there of what they have learnt.
The re-capture of more areas in the East is now a matter of time. This week additional troops have been poured into the area. The move, however, will not rid guerrilla presence completely. The pattern throughout the war has been to resist, allow the troops to spread out and then withdraw. Already troops hold more areas in the East than before. The phenomenon of sporadic attacks therefore will not disappear altogether.

In the North, however, it is a different story. The battles at Vilattiukulam in the Wanni have shown that the guerrillas are offering fierce resistance. They have pumped in additional cadres. This only means more and heavier fighting. Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is running the military machine, told foreign correspondents recently that he needs three years to finish the LTTE. The acquisition of new weaponry and the expansion of the military strength will only mean an additional financial burden. This is at a time when the cost of living is proving to be a heavier burden on the public and unbridled corruption including those in military procurements is on the rise.

When the new recruitment drive is over, the total military strength – Army, Navy, Air Force, Police, Special Task Force, Home Guards would be over 300,000. Although military top brass have repeatedly placed the LTTE strength at less than 3,500, intelligence estimates say they are now 20,000 to 25,000. Yet, the disparity in the ratio has continued throughout the different phases of the separatist war. Against this backdrop, the biggest question that looms large is the money to fight the stepped-up war.

One of the oft-repeated assertions at recent meetings of the National Security Council is from Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera. He says there is no money in the Treasury, much to the chagrin of defence and security higher ups. The only option that remains is to call upon the public to tighten their belts even further by making more sacrifices. That is the stark reality, or the naked truth, even if top sleuths choose to visit home in the night to question how such things could be said. No amount of propaganda can hide them.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.