ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 08
Columns - Situation Report  

East: the aftermath

  • Service Chiefs discuss how to thwart any LTTE infiltration
  • Eastern victories turn Colombo into a city under siege, Thursday was a security nightmare

By Iqbal Athas

Hard on the heels of the victory at Toppigala followed the national celebrations in Colombo last Thursday. Even if the victory by the Security Forces and the Police (mostly their Special Task Force) earned plaudits from the public, the highly publicized event at Independence Square, in marked contrast, was different. Despite a strong campaign to whip up euphoria, only some Sri Lankans showed interest in the event. They hoisted national flags in their homes, offices, shops and motor vehicles. The fact that most others did not, like during Independence Day celebrations, was clearly apparent. There was no countrywide national enthusiasm over the Government sponsored ceremonies.

It was being held to pay tribute to the men and women who laid down their lives, lost their limbs, were wounded and others who succeeded in re-capturing Toppigala. More importantly, as President Mahinda Rajapaksa, declared in his address to the nation, "the demonic forces of terror who for several decades had robbed the freedom of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people who lived in the fertile lands of the East of our motherland, have been completely driven away." In other words, the East, the Government declared earlier last week, was now free of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

A Chinese built T-55 Main Battle Tank rolls down Colombo’s Independence Square on Thursday during Government sponsored ceremonies to mark the re-capture of Toppigala. Photo: Gemunu Wellage

With last Thursday's events over, Security Forces and Police top brass in the Western Province breathed a sigh of relief. Their great ease is understandable. There were intelligence warnings of at least six different guerrilla groups planning to wreak havoc. The idea, like other planned attacks on VIPs and vital targets, it was claimed, was to mar last Thursday's events.

The Army is placed in overall charge of security in the Western province. All other state security agencies are under their operational command. Army Headquarters have debarred senior officers from dealing with the media. Hence, one of them spoke on grounds of anonymity to The Sunday Times to explain their role in preventing any incidents last Thursday. His remarks not only underscored their difficult role but also the dangers that lay ahead.

He said, "There is a migrant population of nearly a million people entering or leaving the greater Colombo metropolitan area. There are 300,000 vehicles that enter or leave daily. A majority of them cross the Kelani bridge. Of this, the number of buses and coaches average between 10,000 and 15,000."

He said conducting thorough checks on all of them was humanly impossible. On the other hand, he said, several vital installations had to be protected in the light of the LTTE threat (after the re-capture of Toppigala) that economic and military targets would be attacked. This included security installations, the Colombo Port, the Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayake, Oil installations at Kolonnawa, Muthurajawela, the Kelanitissa Power Station and the Railway. "You have to remember that we have to maintain the peak levels of alert. With limited resources and strength that is a gigantic task," he said.

The Army officer's remarks underscored two important ground realities - Heightened Tiger guerrilla threats in the City and suburbs were very much a likelihood. Though the East was cleared, precautions had to be taken round the clock to prevent any devastating attack. Secondly, the threats to targets in the City require the continuation of troops and police strength now deployed. The preventive measures they adopt, among others, checks on vehicles and persons will thus continue. These factors no doubt leave or even enhance the impression that Colombo is a capital under siege. That is not good news to the commerce and industrial sectors.

Added to that is the warnings already issued to star class hotels and operators of high rise buildings not to switch on their auxiliary power supply when there is a blackout. This is due to fear of air attacks by the guerrillas. In a note to their guests, one leading hotel has advised that when there are blackouts, they should shut any window that is open and draw the curtains. They have been advised to use candles placed in the toilet together with a box of matches. Needless to say, these precautionary measures will continue for some more time. It would be difficult to imagine how an investor wanting to plough in millions of dollars in a project in Sri Lanka would react to these security procedures. These are preliminaries they would have to go through before talking formalities with the local counterparts or Government officials.

Those are the threat perceptions that portend the City of Colombo and suburbs. What about the East, particularly in the aftermath of Government claims that Tiger guerrillas have been completely driven away? Interesting enough, an indication of how things could manifest emerged at the weekly meeting of service chiefs last Tuesday at the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH). Intelligence officials pointed out that a group of some 50 Tiger guerrilla cadres had infiltrated the East and were poised to carry out attacks. Other intelligence reports had earlier spoken of some 200 cadres moving around in the East. Other sources, however, claimed the numbers were much higher. The revelation at the JOH meeting was about an infiltration after the July 11 re-capture of Toppigala.

The meeting is chaired by the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera. It is attended by the Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, Commander of the Air Force, Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke, Police Chief Victor Perera, Commandant of the Police Special Task Force (STF) DIG Nimal Lewke, Chief of Staff of the Army and head of Overall Operations Command (OOC) Major General Lawrence Fernando and senior intelligence officials. The Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, though required to attend, does not participate. Navy sources said this was due to personal reasons. He is represented by a senior Navy officer. The JOH is located in a building inside Army Headquarters.

The fact that a group of 50 guerrilla cadres had infiltrated the east, in an apparent bid to join some 200 which intelligence agencies know are present there, assumes some significance. It is in the light of claims that the guerrillas have been completely driven away from the East. Firstly, evidence that groups were still present in the East was confirmed last Monday.

Suspected Tiger guerrillas shot dead the Chief Secretary of the Eastern Provincial Council, Herath Abeyweera. The top most State official for the Eastern province had introduced a daily work norm that included the hoisting of the national flag and the playing of the national anthem on the public address system. The next day, guerrillas shot dead an Army captain and wounded two soldiers at Sittaru near Kantalai in the Trincomalee district.

The fact that groups are still operating, though not holding territory, poses threats not only to Government officials, but also military, Police top brass and VIPs. They could also be more than an irritant in sabotaging the ambitious development projects which the Government wants to launch. Furthermore, with plans to conduct both local and provincial elections, they can pose serious threats to the lives of candidates contesting them.

Naturally, minimizing these threats effectively would require not only a larger strength but also more resources. This becomes the dilemma for the defence establishment. With claims that the East has been rid of guerrilla presence, their focus is now turning to the North. It is no secret that troops are thinning out in some parts of the East paving the way for Police, including the Special Task Force to take over their roles. More strength and more resources would be required for the planned military operations in the North.

Unlike their strategy in the East of withdrawing to return later, the guerrillas have been strongly resisting any advance by troops in the Northern theatre. This position was underscored by guerrilla political wing leader, S.P. Tamilselvan in an interview with the Tamilnet web site on June 25. He said the LTTE adopts military strategies to suit the place, the environment and the time. He warned that the "Sinhala forces" would understand the trap they have set for themselves. It remains to be seen whether the remarks were mere rhetoric.

Though the Security Forces are yet to formally launch a major offensive in the North, a limited intrusion a week ago met with stiff resistance. Troops broke out of their defended localities near Irana Iluppaikulam to advance towards the village of Tampanai. These areas are located east of Mannar. Ahead of the move artillery and mortar barrages rained on guerrilla positions after midnight that day. By evening troops were back to their original positions. At least 14 soldiers were killed and 78 more were wounded. Army sources say a sizeable number of those wounded were P1 cases or those who would be left out of battle.

In the light of severe restrictions placed by Army Headquarters, correct casualty counts of troops are not made available to the media on most incidents. On Friday, guerrillas mounted attacks on three different small detachments of the Army near Mannar, overrunning one of them. The Army denied Tiger guerrilla claims that they had killed ten soldiers and said only four had died.

Ahead of plans to attack guerrilla positions in the North, a move which the Government has publicly declared, the Security Forces are in the process of assessing their new needs. Besides more equipment, replenishing stocks of artillery, mortar, heavy guns and small arms ammunition will require an enormous financial commitment. This is particularly after vast stocks have been expended in the East during the past months. This is besides the needs of the Air Force and the Navy. This poses a serious question for the Government. Even if immediate needs are obtained by marshalling meagre resources, the economic burden of running the expanding military machine on the long term becomes a critical issue. With a deteriorating economy, how would funds be raised is the all important question.

Even if there is forced recruitment in the North, with the LTTE demanding one member from every family, funds do not seem to be a major problem for them. Since March 26, this year, when they demonstrated their air strike capability, contributions from the Tamil diaspora has increased considerably.

A revealing article due for publication in the Jane's Intelligence Review next month notes that the LTTE generates an estimated US $ 200 to $ 300 million every year. It points out that after meeting their operational costs to run an administration (in the Wanni) amounting to US $ 8 million, the profit margin would become the envy of any multinational corporation.

Unlike the Jihadist movement, the LTTE, the JIR investigation reveals, is a centralized, hierarchical organization commanded and controlled by its founding leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. It says the LTTE ranks tend to fill the ranks of the two principal directorates that manage the interlocking arms of raising money and buying weapons. However, lower down the chain of command LTTE members tend to act as outsourced agents driven as much by profit as any ideological commitment to creating a Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

The JIR report has delved at length into the findings by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. During a series of detailed operations, FBI stings led to the arrest of Tiger guerrilla suspects and their associates in New York, Guam, Indonesia and Singapore.

The JIR report says that two overarching financial and procurement bodies are the Aiyanna Group, directed by Pottu Amman, and the Office of Overseas Purchases, directed by Kumaran Pathmanathan, alias KP, and source of the office's nickname, the KP Department. The Aiyanna Group (Aiyanna is a letter from the Tamil alphabet) functions as the Tamil Tigers' clandestine intelligence and operations body and is likely to be responsible for monitoring and ensuring the organisation's financial support and revenue streams. The Aiyanna Group's global management allegedly acts as overseer to Tamil communities in Western countries through myriad LTTE front organizations.

The Office of Overseas Purchases or KP Department is most probably the LTTE's procurement arm. Although Vaitiyalingam Sornalingam, alias Colonel Shankar, created the unit (the now deceased Canadian Tamil who also founded the LTTE's Air and Sea Tiger Wings), KP allegedly directs its activities at present. The second most wanted man in Sri Lanka, Pathmanathan, the JIR report notes, is a highly competent and elusive operative. The KP department has reportedly sourced arms in various countries and operates a fleet of deep-sea vessels, known as Sea Pigeons (Kadal Pura). Normally registered in Panama, Honduras or Liberia, the Sea Pigeons are primarily tasked with the delivery of procured weapons to LTTE bases in Sri Lanka and may also be in other LTTE enterprises, legal or otherwise.

Commenting on KP's role, a high ranking intelligence source in Colombo told The Sunday Times "KP is no longer active. He is sick. We know he is now in a Scandinavian country living under an assumed name. Castro, the LTTE's head of the International Wing, tried to take his place. Some of his operatives fell to FBI traps."

The JIR report reveals that the LTTE creates and staffs charitable fronts and projects its influence through these organizations and outsourced Tamil gangs to raise money from Tamil communities and, ultimately, convert the gains into arms. Noting that weapons from the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have been limited to items of low technology, JIR says that Cambodia is one of the most significant single sources of weapons to the LTTE outside Sri Lanka. Other sources of origin were the rest of Southeast Asia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and Ukraine. Thailand is also described as another source.

The JIR report notes that LTTE's international network of non-governmental and charitable organizations work as an efficient way for it to move funds wherever investment or procurement opportunities arise. Proving that they can be profitable, these non-profit organizations afford an estimated US $ 2 million a month to the LTTE war chest. The charitable fronts also offer tax free status and legitimacy gained through working with larger, reputable, non-governmental organizations.

JIR says the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami allowed the LTTE to easily raise large sums of money and move them to LTTE-administered regions under the pretext of charitable disaster relief. Much of the money has been untraceable and the Sri Lankan government claims it has been diverted to the LTTE war machine.

In their conclusion, the lengthy JIR account says LTTE's strategic aim of defeating the Sri Lankan military and securing a political victory in the form of a separate Tamil state depends on the organisation's capacity to source money and arms abroad. Its strategic need to acquire high-tech weaponry, such as surface to air missiles, indicates its activities will continue. However, if the Western law enforcement crackdown on LTTE financial and procurement continues, the group's ability to fight may be weakened in the medium term, degrading its ability to withstand the Sri Lankan government's offensives and further undermining its combat capabilities.

Given the losses incurred by the LTTE since 2006 in the east of the country, JIR notes, this may lead to increased pressure to sue for peace, although given the tenacious history of the LTTE not even a severe denigration of its arsenal will encourage a political settlement with the current government.

In the past week or more Tiger guerrillas have withdrawn from positions in Batticaloa west. Military Intelligence sources told The Sunday Times groups had moved to the Trincomalee district.

They have headed towards Kandalkadu, Kadawana and to areas north of Trincomalee. Some groups have also moved into the Ampara district. These sources said sporadic attacks by these groups cannot be ruled out. A disturbing feature in this regard, according to these sources, was the shifting of the LTTE's main intelligence base from the Batticaloa district to the Amparai district. Intercepts of radio communications had shown that the new base was regularly making radio contact with guerrilla bases in the Wanni. Yesterday STF commandos killed six guerrillas including an area leader in Kanjikudichiaru in the Ampara district. This came during the concluding stages of Operation Nihatai Jaya (Assured Victory)

An unusual feature during the Government sponsored celebrations over the victory at Toppigala was a request asking the Army, Navy and the Air Force to address messages to senior school children. The message from the Navy praised both the Army and the Air Force for their role in operations in the East.

But the one from the Army to the students left out the role of the Navy altogether. Naturally, like observers who closely watch the defence and security establishments, discerning students would have wondered whether there was anything wrong. Many a question in this regard has been raised at the highest levels of the Government in the past. If in fact there were differences of opinion or displeasure at the higher levels of command, it is most reprehensible that attempts have been made to educate the senior students, the future generation, of such situations. The fact that there has been no firm Government control over such attempts to poison young minds makes the situation even worse.

This is what the Army message said, "…..the victory at Thoppigala is the greatest win the Army achieved in the past and it was done after master planning with the co-operation of the Commandos and other units whilst the Air Force support was great in aiming at Tiger targets…."

Without doubt, the Navy played a key role in preventing the guerrillas from escaping via sea. Guerrilla re-inforcements being rushed to the east were once intercepted in the seas off Pulmoddai. Gun battles ensued there. During briefings to his senior officers in the East, the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, had asked them to extend full support to the Army in their operations there.

The concluding paragraph of the Army message to students says,: "Considering that the Indian Army, which is regarded as the fourth largest in the World had difficulties in tackling this area, the admission of defeat by Tiger cadres for the first time, is public proof of our Army's valour and courage." The message ends with a reported quote from a long retired one time IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) intelligence officer that "the Sri Lanka Army can go after any target, which goes to prove that the Tiger days are numbered under the present Army Commander (Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka), which statement we make with pride but with humility."

How the IPKF then found it difficult to reach Toppigala or where and when the Tiger cadres admitted defeat is not made clear. There is little doubt that the victory at Toppigala is significant and the Army played the most important role in it. But there is a long, long way to go if the Tiger guerrillas are to be defeated. In fact, Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, declared it would take at least three years more. Even if it is not for that long a period, sustaining a war effort with an enemy that largely retains its military capability is a challenging one but clearly not an impossible one for the Security Forces.

The words of the Chinese philosopher, Sun Tzu, in his treatise on the Art of War over 2,500 years ago still remain relevant. Although he used these words whilst dealing with spies, it seems appropriate in several other respects:

Raising a host of hundred thousand men and marching them great distances entails heavy loss on the people and a drain on the resources of state. The daily expenditure will amount to a thousand ounces of silver. There will be commotion at home and abroad, and men will drop down exhausted on the highways. As many as seven hundred thousand families will be impeded in their labour.

Hostile armies may face each other for years, striving for victory that is decided in a single day. This being so, to remain in ignorance of the enemy's condition, simply because one grudges the outlay of a hundred ounces of silver in honours and emoluments, is the height of inhumanity.

One who acts thus is no leader of men, no present help to his sovereign, no master of victory. What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge. Now this foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculation.

Knowledge of the enemy's dispositions can only be obtained from other men…….

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