Columns - Situation report

The significance of the Vidattaltivu victory
  • Gains in Weli Oya also as troops make headway further north
  • A commission of Inquiry may probe killing of Indian fishermen
  • Tightest ever security since NAM summit as tense Lanka prepares for SAARC
By Iqbal Athas

There was a great sense of elation in the security establishment, quite justifiably, over the Army's re-capture last Wednesday of the coastal village of Vidattaltivu in the Mannar sector.

It was the location of a major Sea Tiger base. Its importance grew after Security Forces launched an offensive in this sector since July 2 last year. After losing the coastal areas of Silavathurai (south of Mannar) in October 2007, for Tiger guerrillas Vidattaltivu became a landing point for military and medical supplies. This was across the Gulf of Mannar from "safe houses" in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The once busy One Four Base of the LTTE in the jungles north of Weli Oya. Guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was known to have lived here before and during the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) presence in Sri Lanka.

There is also a lesser-known fact in Wednesday's Army success that adds to the elation. Whilst troops re-gained control of the areas around the base, their colleagues continued their advance further northeastwards seizing more territory. Yesterday, troops re-captured the coastal village of Iluppaikaddavai located further northwards. They were positioned outside the town area last night. This gives greater depth and protection to Vidattaltivu. The troops are were now some five kilometers away from Thunnukai.

The final moments before the fall of Vidattaltivu were without any confrontation. Two soldiers, however, were injured after they stepped on "Battas" or improvised mines. Air Force Mi-24 helicopter gunships fired at fleeing guerrillas. The original aim of the offensives in the Mannar sector, since July last year, was to gain control of areas in and around the Madhu Church, sacred to Catholics. Mid way, a second aim to re-capture the Sea Tiger base was included. Two columns of troops advanced northwards, one from west of the Giant's tank and another from the east. In April, troops re-gained control of the church area. Thereafter, during their advance, the two columns merged and headed for Vidattaltivu.

The success there, no doubt, is a credit for the Security Forces personnel who laid down their lives, were wounded and those who fought against all odds. It has been a practice for the guerrillas, more often than not, to offer stiff resistance and back out when they come under heavy military pressure. The aim in such circumstances is to inflict damage to troops whilst they dismantle and remove most of their infrastructure except immovable items.

This happened when the Army launched "Operation Riviresa" (Sun Rays) in October 1985 to regain control of the Jaffna peninsula. Whist offering resistance to troops, the LTTE moved a sizeable volume of its armoury and other assets across the Kilali lagoon to the Wanni. There have been some exceptions, too. One was when "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured) was launched in May 1997 to regain control of the land mass between Nochchimodai (Vavuniya) and Kilinochchi.

This was to link the Jaffna peninsula with Vavuniya, both sectors under Government control. The guerrillas assumed a conventional posture to resist the troop advance. This offensive became the costliest for the military both in terms of human and material losses.

"Operation Jaya Sikurui" was called off in late 1999 on the orders of then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Similarly, Army's onslaught at Vidattaltivu prompted the guerrillas to shift base from there before the final assault came.. According to intelligence sources, they had moved to Nachchikuda, where another major Sea Tiger base had functioned for many years. However, that will not make things easy for the guerrillas. From their earlier base at Vidattaltivu, it was a straight run smuggling military and medical supplies across the Gulf of Mannar. This was using fishing trawlers. The shallow seas there have restricted the movement of Naval craft in the Gulf of Mannar.

Fighting in the Mannar sector has prompted some civilians to flee the area for safety. Here is a scene from Mallawai where a family is moving their belongings in a tractor.

A longer course across the sea and continued naval patrols will entail more problems in using their base at Nachchikuda. Making it difficult for the LTTE to smuggle in logistics supplies is not the only gain from the Army's success at Vidattaltivu. In extending their control of the coastline northwards from Mannar until that village, the troops have effectively placed a barrier against the outflow of refugees to Tamil Nadu.

At present more than 120,000 Sri Lankan refugees are housed in camps and cared for by the Government of India. Almost the entirety of them had crossed the Gulf of Mannar, some paying large sums of money to boat operators. Successive governments have also accused the LTTE of promoting or even arranging for an exodus of refugees to Tamil Nadu to exacerbate Indian Government's concerns.

As the troops, continue their advance in the Mannar sector, what their next aim here is not clear. Even if its known, media reportage would only constitute advance information to the enemy - which is one among a few taboos in this new century that has ushered in a communications revolution that has impacted immensely on how wars are fought.

However, Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told Thursday's news briefing that the next aim of the troops would be to re-capture Kilinochchi, now the heartland of the LTTE. For reasons that are now too obvious, the pros and cons of such a move cannot be examined. So are the analytical aspects arising out of them.

The second thrust of the Army, north of the Weli Oya sector, continues. Troops advance into the jungles ahead of them, before the LTTE's main fortifications, weeks ago led to their seizing the once renowned 1-4 base. This is a camp complex where LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was known to be hiding before and during the period when Indian Peace Keeping Troops (IPKF) were in Sri Lanka. Thereafter, it had been abandoned. Troops also captured the "Michael Base." The guerrillas had weeks earlier abandoned this base after blasting some of the buildings there. Army sources say guerrilla intelligence cadres who were scouting around the area occasionally used the 1-4 base. At the time the troops seized the base, they found fresh evidence of a group of some eight to twelve cadres having cooked meals there.
If the re-capture of Vidattaltivu and its domination by the Security Forces would lower if not prevent altogether the exodus of refugees, an irritant in Sri Lanka-India relations, there are other issues at sea that are causing equal if not more concern in New Delhi. The latest is the killing, allegedly by the Sri Lanka Navy, of two South Indian fishermen from the coastal town of Nagapattnam and the wounding of another on July 11. The incident is said to have taken place on the Indian waters off Point Calimere (the Indian coast across Point Pedro). The move has triggered off pressure from the Tamil Nadu state Government on the Central Government in New Delhi.

So much so, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is scheduled to arrive in Colombo next month for the summit meeting of leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) in Colombo, is to raise the issue with President Mahinda Rajapaksa during bi-lateral talks with him. Mr. Singh's Congress Party Government is facing a trust vote in Parliament on Tuesday raising an element of uncertainty on his visit if the motion is lost.

The Sri Lanka Government has strongly denied allegations that the Navy was involved in any shooting incident. The Foreign Ministry in Colombo issued a detailed statement. The move appeared to underscore the seriousness of the situation.

Here are edited excerpts from the statement commenting on Indian media reports:

"When reports of this nature are received, a rigorous procedure is instituted by Naval Headquarters in Colombo, in keeping with the firm resolve of the Government of Sri Lanka to deal in a humanitarian manner with fishermen apprehended in Sri Lankan waters. The procedure includes Naval Headquarters ascertaining from the Area Commands as to whether any vessels of the Navy were involved in operation in the area of the alleged incident, as per the reported date and time. The preliminary findings in this case are that there were no Naval units operating on the Sri Lanka side of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) in the area off Point Calimere on 11th July.

"However, there was an incident that same night at 21.10 hours at a completely different location, namely approximately 8 NM (nautical miles) East of Point Pedro when two Sri Lanka Navy fast attack craft deployed on a routine patrol detected on their radar, a boat moving in a suspicious manner at high speed of around 34 knots.

"The night vision cameras of the Navy vessels further discerned the suspicious craft as having the configuration of an LTTE low profile boat. The video pictures of the suspicious boat as recorded by the cameras are available with the Sri Lanka Navy, which it is willing to share with the Indian Naval authorities, along with other relevant information. When the suspect boat failed to respond to warning to halt, the Naval craft were constrained (sic) to open fire.

"It was not possible for the Navy vessels to assess the outcome of the action taken by them and accordingly the possibility of the suspect boat having continued on its northerly course cannot be ruled out. The attached map (Annex 1) (Note: This was not released by the Foreign Ministry to the media) provides the maritime location of the action taken by the Sri Lanka Navy vessels at 21.10 hours on 11th July. It is clear that the incident took place well within the Sri Lankan territorial waters and around the sensitive area of Point Pedro, from where the LTTE Sea Tiger wing has frequently engaged in terrorist activities, including attacking cargo and passenger vessels operating to and from the Jaffna peninsula."
The contents of the official statement were formally conveyed to Indian authorities through diplomatic channels. In addition, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in New Delhi, Romesh Jayasinghe, also met Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherji this week to explain the Government's position.

Despite Sri Lanka Government's repeated assertions, the same sources in New Delhi said, the Indian Government has raised issue with Sri Lanka at the highest levels. As a result, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has agreed to appoint a Commission of Inquiry in Colombo to probe Indian allegations. This is besides the Government's own investigations that are already under way. There was, however, no official confirmation so far in Colombo. Senior Government officials contacted by The Sunday Times declined comment. The modalities of the proposed commission including its terms of reference, composition and mandate are yet to be determined, the same sources said.

Amidst this controversy, other issues have also cropped up. The Sri Lanka Navy said one of its patrols had apprehended an Indian national whilst returning to Tamil Nadu by boat from Tiger guerrilla-dominated Wanni. He was apprehended and handed over to the Indian High Commission.

It is in this backdrop that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherji , among others, are scheduled to visit Colombo for the SAARC summit. This week, two high ranking officials of the Indain's Prime Minister's Special Security Group (SSG) were in Colombo to further examine security conditions in the city and the immediate suburbs. Heightening Indian concerns are fears of any possible attacks by Tiger guerrillas.

The Sri Lankan Government has shared the same concerns. So much so enhanced security measures have been taken weeks in advance of the summit. The same consideration has led to using the Parliamentary Complex at Kotte-Sri Jayawardenapura as the retreat for the heads of State and Government. There, they will take part in a lunch on August 3 that is being restricted to the leaders, their Foreign Ministers and the Secretary General of the SAARC numbering only a maximum of 25.
SAARC events will begin on July 27 with a meeting of officials. On July 31 and August 1, the meeting at Foreign Ministers level will be held at the BMICH. A dinner hosted by Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama will take place at the same venue on the night of July 31. The summit level meeting will be held on August 2 and 3. An event for wives of the visiting dignitaries is to be held at the Mount Lavinia Hotel.

The Government is expected to declare August 2 a public holiday on account of SAARC.
All heads of State or Government arriving at the Bandaranaike International Airport will be flown by helicopter to their respective hotels. Foreign Ministers and Foreign Secretaries will be escorted into the City by road for which one segment of the Colombo-Katunayake dual carriageway will be closed.
Contrary to media reports, there will be no large Indian military contingent from India. The maximum number of security personnel to cover Premier Singh as well as Foreign Minister Mukherji and their entourages will not exceed 125, according to official sources. Besides a helicopter for use by Premier Singh and his entourage, India is also providing another VIP transport helicopter at Sri Lanka Government's request for use by visiting dignitaries.

The case of two Indian Navy vessels remaining berthed outside the Colombo harbour is also still under consideration, according to same sources. "We have to respond to some procedural matters raised by Indian authorities," a defence source declared. During the period, India is also to deploy Naval vessels on its side of the IMBL in the Palk Straits.

Since the Non Aligned Summit Conference in Colombo in 1976, this is the first time security considerations have become a nightmare for the defence and security establishment. From now until the summit is over, there will be many a nervous moment. And more than the visiting dignitaries, it is the Sri Lankan public who will be forced to bear the pressures imposed by the need for even stricter security. Under military pressure, the threats posed by guerrillas, particularly outside the theatre of conflict, remain high.

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The significance of the Vidattaltivu victory
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SAARC: The poor relation in regionalism
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