ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 07
Columns - Situation Report  

Toppigala: A victory but bitter battles ahead

  • Important and disturbing realities behind the euphoria and Independence-like ceremony on Thursday

By Iqbal Athas

A Czech built Multi Barrel Rocket Launcher (MBRL) sits in an open stretch of land surrounding the hilly terrain at Toppigala. It was positioned there to fire at guerrilla hideouts in the run up to Wednesday’s re-capture. Photo: Lakshman Gunathilaka

Compared to some of their Asian counterparts, there is a distinct difference between those in the Sri Lankan Security Forces and the Police, including the Special Task Force (STF).

Whatever Government is in power, whatever task is handed down to them, they execute it with deep commitment and dedication. This is both during war and peace. No questions are asked, not even from their own superiors. This is exactly what they did in the battlefields of Batticaloa west.

In the bloody battles during 58 days - April 8 to July 11 - (Phase II of military operations west of the A-5 Maha Oya-Chenkaladi highway), some officers and men paid the supreme sacrifice. Some of the injured will be left out of battle forever. Some others wait till their wounds are healed to return to battle. That is how they re-captured Toppigala (Baron's Cap). During previous military operations at Sampur and Vakarai, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) breathed fire.

They warned of bloodshed that would follow if troops went ahead. But this time, there was muted silence. The final casualty count will be known only in the days to come. The brave ones who have dodged bullets, the dead and the injured will all be remembered as heroes during glittering political ceremonies. Praises will be showered all round. If one is to go by past experience, they will be forgotten thereafter until the next military success arrives. That is almost a culture in Sri Lanka's separatist war.

For the Government, the re-capture is of added significance in a number of respects. Taking flak on many issues including the hardships faced by people over the rising cost of living, allegations of human rights violations, mounting corruption, abductions, kidnappings, killings and a breakdown in law and order, it is a singular achievement in their 19 months in office. Hence, the event is to be celebrated with the grandeur equivalent only to Sri Lanka's annual Independence Day celebrations. The patriotic fervour being whipped up through a high pitched campaign is unmatched even by the freedom day events.

Navy men in Trincomalee with boxes containing part of the explosives found in a freezer truck. Photo: A.T.M. Gunananda

On Thursday, a nationally televised ceremony will take place at the Independence Square. Arrangements for this are being made by the Ministry of Public Administration. Invitations have been sent out to parliamentarians, politicians, diplomats, retired Armed Forces/Police officers, religious dignitaries and senior Government officials.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa will arrive at the venue with ceremonial escorts on Thursday morning, at an auspicious hour after 8.30 a.m. He will hoist the national flag and receive a 21 gun salute. Thereafter, school children will chant Jayamangala Gathas. The Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, will present him with a Sannas Patra (a parchment) declaring that troops have cleared the east of any Tiger guerrilla presence. President Rajapaksa will then address the nation. This will be carried live on television and radio. There will be a fly past by Air Force helicopters. The event will come to a close with a joint services parade of some 800 troops.

Similar ceremonies, also akin to the Independence Day celebrations, are planned for the districts. The District Secretaries are to be told to arrange them in consultation with parliamentarians, politicians, military installations, police, leading members of the clergy and schools in the district. In addition, schools are to be told to have their own ceremonies on Thursday. Principals have been told to address students on the significance of the event.

These ceremonies are reminiscent of the event in the Presidential Secretariat on December 5, 1995. Then Deputy Minister of Defence, Anuruddha Ratwatte, presented a Sannas Pattara (a parchment) to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in which he declared that Yapa Patuna (Jaffna peninsula) was cleared of Tiger guerrillas. Though nationally televised, this ceremony was sans a military parade. Then, Mr. Ratwatte hoisted the victory flag in Jaffna. This time President Rajapaksa will hoist it at Independence Square. Promotions to the service chiefs is also on the cards.

Just nine months after the official ceremonies on the re-capture of the Jaffna peninsula, Tiger guerrillas infiltrated the area. On July 4, 1996, it was formally confirmed. This was when the present Minister of Health and Leader of the House, Nimal Siripala de Silva, narrowly escaped death at the hands of a female suicide bomber. But the Brigade Commander for Jaffna, Major General (posthumously promoted) Ananda Hamangoda and Deputy Inspector General of Police (posthumously promoted) Carlyle Dias were killed. Barely two weeks later, Tiger guerrillas mounted a conventional style attack on the Mullaitivu military complex. Nearly 1500 troops and civilian employees were killed and military hardware worth millions of rupees was lost.

The re-capture of Toppigala, at least for the moment, has seen the end to Tiger guerrilla dominance of tracts of land in the East. They are now present only in small pockets and keep moving from place to place. Therefore, threats of possible attacks still lurk. On Friday night a guerrilla, aircraft flying over Pulmoddai (north of Trincomalee) was spotted by a Navy patrol. It was later confirmed by ground forces in the area. It led to a high security alert in the districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Security authorities later learnt the aircraft had landed in the Wanni. Fears of possible air or ground attacks in the Colombo City and suburbs also led to enhanced security measures.

There is no doubt the victory at Toppigala is significant. Though largely desolate stretches of scrub jungle, with rocky patches, it was good hiding ground. That is why the guerrillas used this almost inaccessible terrain to set up bases to re-train, re-arm and re-group to attack troops and police in the East. The surroundings offered them the protection they needed. These bases assumed greater significance after the fall of Mavil Aru, Sampur, Vakarai, Panichchankerni, Kathiraveli and neighbouring areas. Thus, Toppigala became an even more important staging area. That is now denied to the guerrillas.

The success at Toppigala is built on the sacrifices of the dedicated troops. Some of them engaged in the battles are not living to see this achievement. Now, it would be more important, even far more than the re-capture, to make sure the gains are retained. That, no doubt, would require a large military and even police presence. That is to avert two very disturbing situations from recurring -- prevent guerrilla infiltration and the consequent destabilization of the development process. Otherwise, the former would pave the way for small scale attacks. Like in the past, they could gradually lead to increased guerrilla activity resulting in bigger battles.

This has happened in the East twice in the past. In March 1990, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) withdrew from Sri Lanka. Three months later, Tiger guerrillas had taken full control of the province. The permission of the LTTE was required for Security Forces to move around in many areas. Military installations in Batticaloa and Ampara districts came under attack. The areas were re-captured following an operation launched by Major General the late Denzil Kobbekaduwa. One of the officers involved in this operation was then Lt. Col. Sarath Fonseka, who was Commanding Officer of the first battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment.

But the later years saw the return of the guerrillas. Then military operations to clear the East once more, to facilitate the conduct of Parliamentary General Elections in 1994, got under way. They were executed by Major General the late Lakshman (Lucky) Algama backed by Major General Janaka Perera, then Commanding Officer of the Independent Brigade. The latter in fact led troops to Toppigala. No major confrontations took place since the guerrillas beat a hasty retreat. The year long operation that began in 1993 ended with the entirety of the East being cleared. In an interview with The Sunday Times, the late Maj. Gen. Algama noted, "the strategy of the IPKF (who later withdrew) was to saturate captured areas with their troops." He added, "The East was in turmoil. A civil war situation similar to the one in the North prevailed."

Till this re-capture, the guerrillas not only returned to the East but also strongly established themselves. This was possible since the bulk of the troops there were withdrawn and some camps were shut down. The reason - the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government wanted troops for Operation Jaya Sikurui (Victory Assured). The aim of this operation was to establish a contiguous land route from Omanthai to Kilinochchi, thus linking the Government controlled Jaffna peninsula. Almost three years after it was launched, the operation which is the costliest both in terms of human and material losses was abandoned.

During that 13 year period, the guerrillas posed a serious threat to the Trincomalee Port. They had established a string of camps south of this strategic location. The United States Pacific Command, which made a study, was to recommend that the guerrillas should be evicted if the threat to the port, the lifeline for troops in the Jaffna peninsula, is to be removed. It is from the Trincomalee Port that food and military supplies are regularly moved by sea to the North. The LTTE had bases in Batticaloa and Ampara districts too. Yet, the guerrillas did not dominate vast tracts of territory. They withdrew from areas when the Security Forces moved in and returned when they moved out.

That is why, the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002 did not provide for a Zone of Separation between the Armed Forces and the Tiger guerrillas in the Eastern Province. The CFA (Article 1.5) declared that "in areas where localities have not been clearly established, the status quo as regards the areas controlled by the GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) and the LTTE respectively, on 24 December 2001 shall continue to apply pending such demarcation as is provided for in Article 1.6."

Article 1.6 says "The parties shall provide information to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) regarding defence localities in all areas of contention……The monitoring mission shall assist the Parties in drawing up demarcation lines at the latest by D-day + 30."
However, determination of Zones of Separation in the East with the help of the SLMM did not materialize though the mission took many initiatives. Unlike in the North, areas controlled by the Government and the LTTE, in accordance with the CFA, as a result, remained undefined in the East. Some of the LTTE camps in the East were thus set up after the CFA and the guerrillas began to dominate more ground.

There is no denying that the troops had secured a substantial victory at Toppigala. Yet, during the offensive neither a larger number of guerrillas have been killed (contrary to highly exaggerated official claims) nor their military machine badly dented. During meetings of the National Security Council, high ranking Army officers claimed that in the run up to the re-capture, the guerrillas have been badly boxed in. They said they had no escape route and would thus fall prey to the troops. They feared a massacre was inevitable. Yet, the guerrillas made good their escape with most of their military hardware.

Thus, a large number of the guerrillas have been evicted from their strongholds with troops seizing territory they dominated. Hard on the heels of the artillery, mortar and gunfire, "a hearts and minds operation" would become imperative for the Government to win the confidence of the people. That is to pave the way for its Master Plan to develop the East. Such a move would naturally entail the participation of the Security Forces and the Police. With unsettled conditions, fear and lack of confidence in the Government by the populace, seeking civilian co-operation becomes a formidable challenge.

Behind the victory at Toppigala lay some important if not disturbing realities. The 58 day battle has seen the very extensive use by troops of artillery, mortar, multi barrel rockets, machine gun and small arms ammunition. Together with the bombs used by the Air Force Kfir and MiG-27 jets, the costs have been gigantic. Last week in particular saw the stepping up of this activity after queries were raised by Government leaders as to why the offensive was dragging on. It is common sense that the expended artillery, mortar, small arms, machine gun, MBRL ammunition as well as new requirements of military hardware that have now arisen are procured. This naturally means more money. Colossal amounts would be required. Of course, that would also mean fat commissions for some. The separatist war, since its inception, has spawned billionaires and millionaires. The only difference today is the fact that corruption has reached newer heights.

In the recent past, a Task Force One commanded by the newly promoted Brigadier Charlie Gallage was vested with the responsibility of conducting operations to re-capture Toppigala. It is made up of six battalions. With the approval of the Ministry of Defence, Army Headquarters wants to convert this new Task Force One as their 58 Division. Army Headquarters is also to commend Brig. Gallage for his role in executing the Toppigala operation successfully.

Engaged in the Toppigala military offensive were the 2nd battalion of the Commando Regiment, 7th battalion of the Gemunu Watch, 8th battalion of the Gemunu Watch and two more infantry battalions together with the 1st battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment being placed on a reserve role. Two weeks ago, additional troops drawn from the North were moved in. Further batches to step up the offensive were dispatched a week ago in the light of queries raised by Government leaders.

A look in retrospect at the military offensives in the East reveals an important aspect. The chronology of events shows that the troops have been literally chasing the guerrillas from zone to zone. On July 21, last year, the guerrillas interrupted water supply to nearly 6,000 farmer families in land north of the Batticaloa district. This is by shutting down the sluice gates of the Mavilaru irrigation scheme. On July 26 commando teams moved in to soften targets. An Army offensive, under the leadership of then Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Nanda Mallawaratchchi, got under way to re-capture Mavilaru and surrounding areas. He ensured the areas were regained by August 8. Maj. Gen. Mallawaratchchi is now Sri Lanka's Ambassador in Indonesia.

In a retaliatory move, Tiger guerrillas attacked military installations in Kattaiparichchan, Mutur and neighbouring areas. Three days later, the Security Forces launched counter offensives to re-capture these areas held by the guerrillas for nearly three days. They also launched mortar attacks on the Eastern Naval Area Headquarters in the Dockyard in Trincomalee on August 1. Thereafter, on August 12, they directed mortar attacks on the Sri Lanka Air Force base in China Bay.

In the wake of this, the Security Forces launched an offensive to re-capture Sampur and its environs on August 27. The operation was concluded on September 4. They followed up with an operation to flush guerrillas out of Manirasakulam and Kangai, where a Sea Tiger base was located. By then, they had moved in large numbers to Panichchankerni, Vakarai, Kathiraveli and adjoining areas. An operation to re-capture these areas was launched on October 30 and was concluded on January 21, this year.

In the Trincomalee district, troops launched operations to re-capture Kadawana (north of Trincomalee) from February 2 to 7. Thereafter, they set up a camp there. The operations were continued from February 21 to February 25 to re-capture Kumburupiddy. Both Kadawana and Kumburupiddy were considered as locations where the guerrillas established guard points to secure land access to the East from the North and vice versa. The first phase of the operations in Batticaloa district east of the A-5 Maha Oya-Chenkaladi Road began on February 24 and ended on April 7.

The second phase (west of the A-5 highway) which ended with the re-capture of Toppigala began on April 14 and ended on July 11. During this period, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs) carried out attacks on guerrilla groups behind their own lines. An earlier push for Toppigala on June 8 met with stiff resistance.

The Government is whipping up mass scale euphoria countrywide over the success at Toppigala. The focus of the military, in this backdrop, shifts to the Northern Province. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has declared that offensives in the North would continue until the guerrillas are weakened. Yesterday, troops began a limited operation in the Mannar district. They moved forward from their defences towards Tampanai, east of Madhu. Heavy fighting broke out.

President Rajapaksa had earlier told Norway's peace facilitators during a meeting in Geneva that military offensives would be halted only if LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, declares he would cease violence and express a wish to talk peace. The LTTE response came again this week. The leader of the LTTE Political Wing, S.P. Tamilselvan, declared his group did not have confidence in President Rajapaksa to resume peace talks. He told Simon Gardner of Reuters news agency during an interview in Kilinochchi that the guerrillas would carry out attacks on military and economic targets.

Thus, both the Government and the LTTE have made their positions unequivocally clear. Despite the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002, the two sides will battle it out. Hence, the undeclared Eelam War IV shows very clear signs of heightening further. No more proof is required to confirm that bitter battles are on the way as the nation's economy continues to take a beating.

Freezer truck: Hot air and cold facts

A highly agitated Spokesman for the Navy, the hoary Commander D.K.P. Dassanayake, waxed eloquent at last Tuesday's briefing at the Media Centre for National Security. It was over some media reports that Karuna (Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) associate Pillayan had tipped off the Navy to arrest a freezer truck laden with more than 1,000 kilogrammes of explosives in Trincomalee. He charged that "some elements with vested interests" were attempting to sideline the Navy's achievements. However, he did not identify who these elements were nor say what the "vested interests" were. Are they in the media or in another organization?

He claimed that the detection was made by the Navy. His quick response came in reply to a hurried query raised by a reporter. He challenged the media to prove him wrong. Whilst Commander Dissanayake made this rather unusual challenge, some Navy top brass tried to accuse The Sunday Times (at the highest levels of the defence establishment) over the same matter.

However, The Sunday Times did not say Pillayan was instrumental in tipping off the Navy. For that matter, nor was the group involved identified. Commander Dassanayake was right when he said at the news briefing that Pillayan was not involved. But what about the other claims including the open challenge he so boldly threw open to all the media?

Referring to this incident, last week's Situation Report said "A one time militant group now helping the Navy in Trincomalee was singularly responsible for the events that led to the detection of over 1,000 kilogrammes of explosives. It began on June 24, when cadres of this group rounded up 32 year old Kanakaratnam Jeevaratnam alias Jeevan alias Muththu and his Freezer truck JG 4915…….."

The Sunday Times is able to reveal today that the "arrest" of Jeevaratnam was carried out by Maarkkan (the leader) and Eelavaran of the Karuna group operating in Trincomalee. The duo subjected Jeevaratnam to "intense interrogation" during the five days they held him. It is only then that Jeevaratnam "broke down" and confessed to the presence of the explosives in the freezer truck.

In fact, the duo posed for a photograph with Jeevaratnam before he was handed over to the Navy. The Sunday Times has seen a copy of this photograph. That is not all. The two Karuna faction cadres were given a nominal cash reward for the intelligence information they provided and for handing over Jeevaratnam, their prize catch. The amount is known but is being withheld. They are still awaiting a further substantial payment as their "just" reward.

The question that begs answer now is whether the Navy top brass is irked because of recommendations they made to the Ministry of Defence on cash rewards for those reportedly responsible. Is the reward money in millions or lakhs of rupees is the question that is being asked. Insiders say that in the light of the recent media disclosures, the reward payment has been stalled. They say a probe into the entire episode may follow.

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