ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday January 20, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 34
Columns - Situation Report  

Three different thrusts into rebel strongholds

  • Eelam War IV to be decisive as defence costs soar
  • Besieged guerrillas carry battle outside conflict areas 42 civilians killed within two days

By Iqbal Athas

Army soldiers on foot patrol at Hambegamuwa, one of two villages in the Tanamalwila Police area (in the Moneragala district) where Tiger guerrillas killed two Grama Sevakas and eight civilians on Thursday. This was in the aftermath of the claymore mine attack on a bus that left 27 dead near Okkampitiya last Wednesday. Photo: Saman Kariyawasam

With the Ceasefire Agreement no more and no monitors to observe it, the Security Forces have stepped up their offensive against Tiger guerrillas. In the coming days, weeks and months, their declared aim is to defeat the guerrillas militarily and re-capture territory they dominate in the Wanni. Paradoxical enough, the defunct CFA carved out the terrain the troops now want to re-take. In the past nearly six years the perimeters around these areas have been fortified and the guerrillas have vowed to defend them. Hence, the character of upcoming battles would be different and fiercer.

History has shown that when they come under heavy military pressure, the guerrillas have taken the battles outside the theatres of conflict in the North and the East. It is no different this time. The only exception is the dastardly acts of targeting innocent civilians. Last Wednesday, they exploded a claymore mine on a bus near Okkampitiya. When the passengers stepped out, they opened fire at them. The next day they continued their orgy of violence by killing more civilians in two villages in the Moneragala district. These incidents have shocked the defence and security establishment who have been focusing on the Wanni since the CFA was rendered ineffective last Wednesday.

Thus, the dreaded Eelam War IV has just begun. The Security Forces will have as their top priority the militarily weakening of guerrillas and the re-capture of their heartland in the Wanni. This is no secret. Political leaders, Government officials and military higher-ups have publicly declared their intentions and placed the year-end as their deadline. Almost six years in the past, the territory carved out by the Ceasefire Agreement as areas dominated by the LTTE, have been fortified with bunkers. Weeks after the signing of the CFA, The Sunday Times (Situation Report) revealed how vast stocks of cement and steel found their way across the Omanthai checkpoint to guerrilla-dominated Wanni. The bunkers were built using them. In the past weeks, guerrilla strength in some of these locations has been increased to offer resistance.

This is a main reason why troops met stiff resistance since their offensive since July last year to capture the sacred Madhu Church and its environs. On the other hand, troops have also been cautious of their advance. They have moved seizing territory bit by bit to avoid larger casualties. Now, Army sources say they are nearer their goal and hope to secure the Madhu Church area within the next two weeks. They were only some six kilometres away. However, the guerrillas appear to have sensed that the troops would go even beyond the church area to seize control of the Sea Tiger base at Vidutaltivu.

In the past many months, this base had assumed greater significance, particularly since troops re-captured Silavathurai. This fishing village is located south of Mannar and was used as a landing area for supplies smuggled in across the Gulf of Mannar from Tamil Nadu. The shallow draft in the sea prevented larger Naval craft from patrolling. That is why smaller Inshore Patrol Crafts (IPCs) are used in seas there.

The seizure of the Sea Tiger base at Vidutaltivu, military sources say, will deny guerrillas another major landing area and operational base. They say it would also deny easy access to the Tamil Nadu coast from where military and medical supplies were smuggled in smaller quantities. The guerrillas, the sources reveal, have established safe houses to stockpile supplies and smuggle them in smaller quantities.

The recent guerrilla pullout from the village of Periyatampanai, located southeast of the Madhu Church, the same sources said, could underscore the importance of the Sea Tiger base. They believe this was to fortify their defences to secure the base. Yet, senior Army officials in Mannar say it was a matter of time before they gain control of the entire area. Bolstering their confidence are two factors - a letter found in the possession of a dead female cadre. She had written it to her family but was killed before it was delivered.

In that she had enumerated the difficulties she had in the battlefield with no food or drink. She had also spoken of her immediate seniors not caring about her welfare. The other is the switch in guerrilla strength in the area. Older male cadres had been replaced with younger ones, mostly females. It is relevant to mention that troops have also been braving serious odds after monsoonal rains muddied wells. Drinking water to them had to be transported all the way from Colombo.

Other details pertaining to this military thrust from Mannar, the longest in offensives against the guerrillas in recent years, cannot be disclosed in view of serious constraints. These include casualty counts and the sacrifices made by troops on the ground. In the case of the latter, such a move would earn the ire of the seniors.

Since November 6, last year, troops along the defended localities at Muhamalai, the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, have made attempts to advance southwards. This is in the direction of Kilinochchi. On that day, seven battalions broke out of the defence lines astride Muhamalai at dawn. Some two hours later they were forced to withdraw to their original positions due to heavy resistance (The Sunday Times - Situation Report November 11 2007). Since then, troops have made incursions to attack guerrilla defences and return to their positions. Their thrust, to keep the pressure on the guerrillas, continues. Here again, constraints prevent disclosing further details though they are matters of public interest.

The third thrust into guerrilla-dominated territory began from the eastern side of the defended localities at Vavuniya. Troops of the newly established 59 Division of the Army have begun their advance from the defence lines at Weli Oya. As they moved past the coastal fishing area of Kokkutuduwai, the biggest obstacle has been pressure mines planted along their path of advance. The thrust in this sector continues though the details cannot be spelt out.

Since July, last year, the Eastern province has been brought under Government control. Though small groups of guerrillas have made their presence felt there, the guerrillas are prevented from carrying out large-scale attacks. This is in view of the concentration of troops and police. Thus the focus of the Security Forces now remains the Wanni, with three different thrusts being made into rebel strongholds.

Supporting roles on the three-pronged ongoing assault in the Wanni are both the Navy and the Air Force. The Navy has stepped up patrols in the seas off northeast and the Jaffna peninsula. On Friday, patrols were stepped up around the seas off the island of Delft following a warning by a foreign intelligence source of a possible attack. In the past few days, the Air Force has stepped up attacks on targets in the Wanni. The Air Force said they had targeted Sea Tiger bases, an intelligence cell and a bomb factory, among others.

However, the pro-LTTE Tamilnet web site posted reports with pictures that one of the raids had narrowly missed a school. Pictures included injured civilians being taken to hospital, parents with their small children fleeing away and groups of frightened children. These events have often been widely publicised to support subtle propaganda on attacks against civilians in the South. Officially, the LTTE has continued to deny responsibility though its modus operandi is clearly manifest.

Herein lies the dilemma for the Government that has abrogated the CFA, packed off the monitors and formally engaged in Eelam War IV. It is not fashionable and would even be "treacherous" to discuss these aspects. Suffice to say this is why some analysts opined that the Government should have remained in the CFA and continued their campaign to militarily weaken the Tiger guerrillas. If that happened, the Government would have had to only contend with the guerrillas. However, now, they point out, it has also to contend with some of the world's most powerful nations whose concerns the Government has defied. Elaborating further would only qualify for the freely distributed title of "traitor." Today, when views are expressed, it is not opinions to counter them that are aired by the high and the mighty. They pour scorn on those who express such views.

The military pressure on the guerrillas, despite the resistance they have been offering, is telling on them. On the one hand such resistance, contrary to some propagandists, show that the guerrilla military capability remains contrary to claims they have been totally weakened. On the other, the guerrillas are conscious that the sustained might of the Security Forces, with a far superior fire power, could on the long run begin to cause dents in their military machine. Such dents in their stronghold of Wanni, well fortified during the near six-year ceasefire, could become at least the beginning of the end militarily.

Hence, the move to carry the battle outside the theatre of conflict. However reprehensible it may be, this is why the guerrillas would go for civilian targets. Such acts are no doubt unconscionable. Privately they argue the attacks are tit-for-tat. Officially they deny them. These cruel acts are important to the guerrillas. Saying this is by no means to justify or condone them. It is purely to educate the public of the underlying reasons so they may appreciate the situation. Wednesday's massacre of civilians in a village near the southern town of Buttala, 238.4 kilometres from Colombo, underscores these factors. First to the sequence of events that led to the civilian massacre and subsequent events that led to the deaths of 32.

Tuesday, January 15 - A villager saw three persons in uniform crossing the road. This was at Welipara Junction, located on the road from Buttala and the gemming town of Okkampitiya. The village is more towards the Okkampitiya end. He thought they were Army personnel. An hour later, the villager met the Grama Sevaka of the area when he was passing by and told him about it. The villager said he was half a kilometre away from the junction when he spotted the three persons.

The Grama Sevaka had told the Officer-in-Charge of the Buttala Police. The OIC and 12 police officers had arrived at the scene later. They questioned the villager, took him to Welpara junction and asked him to show the direction in which the suspected Army officers walked. The Police party then trekked the path for a little distance and returned. There were no signs of the "Army" men.

Wednesday, January 16 - Around 6.45 a.m. Manel Wijesinghe, a minor employee attached to the Okkampitiya Hospital, was going to work in a bicycle. At the Welipara junction she saw what she thought were a group of Army men. Some were standing whilst others had crouched behind trees. She alighted from her bicycle and tried to walk towards them. One of the men in Army uniform signalled with his hand not to come closer and to go away. They gave the impression that they were on some ambush.

According to the minor employee, one of the men in Army uniform had a communication set strapped to his back. It had a long antenna. (This makes clear that the group of men were in radio contact with a base or individuals some distance away). They were all carrying assault rifles. When she reported to work, Manel Wijesinghe told her colleagues at the hospital that the Army was planning to do something at the Welipara junction. She said they would soon round up some terrorists and the news would be out thereafter.

At 7.25 a.m. A bus with some ten passengers passes the Welipara junction. Immediately thereafter, some villagers walking past Welipara junction see the same group and believe they were Army men waiting for an ambush. The armed men signal with their hands asking the villagers to walk fast from that area. At 7.35 a.m. a packed bus approaches the Welipara junction. A claymore mine explodes. Tiger guerrillas who had by then taken up position in a hillock nearby open fire at the passengers who dismount the bus and try to run. Thereafter, the guerrillas descend the hill to fire at more passengers. One of them entered the bus through the front door and shot dead those inside. It transpires that the claymore mine had only injured ten passengers. A total of 27 passengers were killed and 51 were wounded.

At 11.00 a.m., the guerrillas who fled into the neighbouring jungle had entered a Chena cultivation. Farmers were busy tilling the field. They shoot five of them dead. At 9.55 a.m., the news of the incident had reached an Army Special Forces training camp at Galge. It is located on the road between Kataragama and Buttala. An officer musters three soldiers and decides to rush to a neighbouring camp in a Unicorn armoured vehicle to warn troops there of the incident. A powerful claymore mine hits the vehicle injuring three soldiers. They were rushed to the Hambantota Hospital.

Investigators suspect that this claymore mine was meant for another bus carrying passengers. The lethality of this claymore mine could be seen from how the pellets in it penetrated from one armour plated side of the Unicorn and exited through the other armour plated side. Quite clearly, this means, armour plating passenger buses would be of no avail unless the sheeting used is thicker. In such an event, the buses would be so heavy it would not only consume more fuel but also move slowly.

On Wednesday afternoon Army commandos entered the jungles near Welipara junction near Okkampitiya to conduct a full search. Hours later, the search operation was to trigger off reports that they had exchanged fire with the fleeing guerrillas. There was no such incident. One of the commandos had stepped on a trap gun accidentally. He was injured and rushed to hospital. The guerrillas had fled and the search in that area was called off.

However, that was not the end of guerrilla activity in the area. The next day, Thursday (October 17) guerrillas entered two villages, Kalaweligama and Hambegamuwa. They are located in the Tanamalwila Police area in the Moneragala district. They shot dead two Grama Sevakas and eight civilians. In just two days, the guerrillas had taken 42 lives, that too in the Deep South. Yesterday, the Government was examining the feasibility of appointing a DIG (Operations) for the Moneragala District. Strongly tipped for this post is K.M. Sarathchandra, DIG who was formerly in the Special Task Force (STF) of the Police. He is now DIG (NWP -West).

The hunt for the guerrillas by Security Forces and the Police, whose strengths were increased since guerrilla related incidents in the Yala National Park continues. Guerrillas attacked the Army Detachment at Talgasmankada (inside the park) on October 15. Seven soldiers were killed and six were wounded in the attack. The next day (October 16), an Army commando lost his leg when he stepped on a pressure mine. Two range officers of the Department of Wild Life Conservation were also injured in this incident.

This week's attacks in the deep south have prompted the defence and security authorities to adopt a number of measures. Two of them, which can be revealed, are the enhancement of security with the deployment of more Police personnel, Home Guards and arming the villagers with shotguns. The latter are to be brought under the supervision of Home Guards. If such measures are extended to other villages, either threatened or may come under attack, it naturally spreads thin the resources available.

That is the main rationale behind the guerrilla strategy of striking deep in the south besides sending the message that they have the capability to do so. For the same reason the guerrillas may turn to other areas including the City of Colombo. These possibilities are being highlighted in the public interest so the people may be vigilant.

In Colombo, enhanced security measures have already been taken. Yesterday, Police Chief Victor Perera, appointed Nimal Lewke, Commandant of the Police Special Task Force (STF), as a security co-ordinator. He will function directly under N.K. Illangakoon, Deputy Inspector General of Police, Range IV. There are three other DIGs under Mr. Illangakoon - DIG Colombo, Nimal Mediwake, DIG Western Province (North) Sarath Jayasundera and DIG Western Province (South) C.D. Wickremaratne.

Another major fallout from the recent guerrilla attacks is the vast amounts of additional expenditure the Government will be compelled to incur. More troops, police and home guards will have to be recruited. They will have to be equipped. So are the villagers to whom shotguns are to be given. One of the side effects of arming villagers, now an inevitability, will be the creation of a number of village level militias. The newer financial commitments will be besides replenishing the needs of the Security Forces and the Police who are at war.

Thus, at a time when food and fuel prices are reaching higher levels, the cost of war is going to be enormous. It would no doubt be a heavy burden on the economy that threatens to take a beating from repercussions in other income generating sectors like tourism, foreign investment, and exports. Therefore Eelam War IV is critical for Sri Lankans than any of the previous phases. It will not only be intense but decisive in the wake of the Government's self-imposed deadline of finishing it this year.

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