Columns - Situation report

Troops make further gains in march to Kilinochchi
  • Sleuths bust plot to assassinate VIP; Tiger team nabbed after dare-devil car chase
  • Rain deals blow to both the Army and the LTTE; thousands of cattle die and mines washed away
By Iqbal Athas

One of the misfortunes of the intelligence community worldwide is how their reported failures reach the public domain in large measure than their successes.

There are many occasions when timely warnings have prevented assassinations, attacks and other catastrophe. However, in a service where the hallmark is secrecy, not all the instances become public knowledge.

There was an exception in Sri Lanka barely two weeks ago. Days ahead of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran's "Maveerar" ("Great Heroes") Day speech on November 27, the guerrillas had sought to create a backdrop fraught with danger. This included plans to cause bodily harm to Government leaders including VVIPS. Warnings had arrived even from foreign intelligence channels. A series of drastic preventive measures followed in some cases. For obvious reasons startling details cannot be revealed.

What was once described as the gateway to Wanni from Vavuniya, the Tiger guerrilla checkpoint at Omanthai now lay abandoned. BELOW: Piles of ammunition boxes lay near the checkpoint area. Photo: Priyantha Hewage

There was at least one instance where intelligence sleuths, with the help of the Army, succeeded in busting a plot where a guerrilla cadre planned a "suicide" attack on an important personality. How it played was reminiscent of scenes from a thriller movie. There was cloak-and-dagger activity coupled with car chases.

It all began when a guerrilla operative rented a new Honda car from a firm in Dehiwala. He said he needed the vehicle, fitted with a sophisticated music system, for ten days and would use his own driver. More than a week ahead of the "Maveerar" day speech by the LTTE leader, the operative headed for Anuradhapura together with the driver. He had told the rent-a-car firm the purpose was to attend a wedding. The two men were unaware that intelligence sleuths throughout their operations were tailing them. It had followed a tip-off.

Upon arriving in the outskirts of Anuradhapura, they had picked up a third person, now identified as Black Tiger suicide bomber. This was the first time he was meeting the duo, the operative who was his handler and the driver. Concealing some items he had in his possession, they drove out of Anuradapura. They were headed in the direction of Colombo. Intelligence sleuths who followed tried to overtake the Honda but were prevented. Suspecting they were being followed, the guerrillas sped. Despite the chase, the sleuths could not keep pace. They sought the help of the Army. Radio messages to various points followed.

At a point near Mihintale, the Army had blocked the road by placing motor cycles and a truck. Unable to break through, the Honda with the three guerrillas inside came to a halt. Intelligence sleuths and Army personnel pounced on them. A search of the vehicle revealed a suicide jacket with ten kilogrammes of explosives. The use of half that volume of explosives to attack targets has had a devastating effect. Packed together with the explosives were steel balls.

The suicide jacket had been concealed in one of two large speakers that lay inside the boot of the Honda. Interrogation of the would-be suicide bomber was to reveal details of his mission. He had been tasked by the guerrilla leadership in the Wanni to travel to Anuradhapura and meet up with the duo that had gone from Colombo. Guerrilla cadres had escorted him through the Wanni to Pampeimadu, Chettikulam to Parasangaswewa and ensured he crossed over to the "controlled" area. He had boarded the Honda at a junction in Parasangaswewa astride the Rambewa-Anuradhapura Road.

Police who have questioned the trio have pieced together the guerrilla plan to attack an important personality. The suicide cadre was to infiltrate his target's inner personal protection group in the uniform of a soldier and explode himself. The guerrilla trio's connections in Colombo have now come under extensive probe.

If not for that timely detection, Prabhakaran's November 27 speech, where he said "today's challenges are neither novel nor huge" would have assumed a different meaning. That is not to say that threats posed by the guerrillas in areas outside the battle zones have receded altogether. On the contrary, with Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu continuing to remain under siege from the Army, such threats have seen a marked rise.
Last Wednesday night, troops and police in the greater Colombo area were in a high state of preparedness following warnings of a possible guerrilla attack on the port. New security procedures have already come into effect at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). In terms of this, passenger vans and three-wheeler scooters are banned from reaching the departure area. Those travelling will be required to alight at the Air Force checkpoint and board a shuttle bus service. This ban will not apply to those travelling by car. It will also not apply to those proceeding to the arrival area.

There have also been warnings of Black Tiger groups entering Vavuniya district. Military Intelligence sources say some of them have been tasked to move to the deep south to attack targets.

Since a guerrilla counterattack on November 23 on the troop advancing along the Pooneryn-Kilinochchi road, there has been a relative lull in the Wanni battlefields. The guerrillas launched this attack at Kunjiparanthan using their hard-core cadres and units that had been withdrawn for training. In these confrontations, both sides suffered heavy casualties. For reasons that are now obvious, the counts, including those reported missing in action, cannot be revealed. The reason is the common enemy, rains, playing havoc both in the Wanni as well as in the Jaffna peninsula. Most areas in the battle zones were water logged, heavily restricting mobility.

For the troops, the problems that continue are the difficulties in moving supplies (military, medical and food) as well as evacuation of casualties. Even the mobility of tractors has been severely affected. Yet, the troops succeeded in recapturing areas in some of the fronts. Troops of the Task Force 1 regained control of parts of the village of Adampan, advanced north of Bharatipuram to re-capture Kokavil. The town, that once housed a television tower that helped national television network Rupavahini to beam to the Wanni and the north, is located on the A-9 highway. It is 22 kilometres south of Kilinochchi.

The Army's 57 Division moved to the outer fringe of the Iranamadu irrigation tank. They are ahead of a ditch-cum-bund built by the guerrillas and are meeting stiff resistance here. Army sources in the Wanni say that troops are nearly six kilometres away from Kilinochchi from this location. An advance beyond the bund would bring the troops to areas regularly used by the guerrillas including their Tank View guesthouse. During the early stages of the ceasefire of February 2002, a sea plane bringing guerrilla chief negotiator the late Anton Balasingham landed in this sprawling tank. This was from the Maldives where he would arrive by a commercial flight.

Troops of Task Force 3 who are advancing eastwards from Mankulam have reached Olumadu. The area where the guerrillas operated a base had been abandoned. The Army's Task Force 2 established their defence lines at Puliyankulam this week. As reported in The Sunday Times (Situation Report) of November 23 (See map), the area was recaptured much earlier. This was after troops advanced from their checkpoint at Omanthai across a stretch of “no man’s land.” They regained control of the LTTE checkpoint area that lay abandoned. Troops here are also advancing eastwards. They are yet to reach Kanakarayankulam and the village of Nedunkerni located next.

Considerable extents of territory have been recaptured by troops of the 59 Division operating north of the Weli Oya sector. They include Otiyamalai on the western flank and the coastal village of Alampil on the east. Barring sporadic resistance, it has become clear that the guerrillas had withdrawn most of their cadres to further fortify their defences around Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.

See map on this page for the latest on the battlefront this week. One of the biggest problems for the guerrillas following heavy rains is the washing away of large quantities of mines they had placed to halt troops advance. In a number of fronts including Kunjiparanthan, Kilinochchi and Odusuddan, large groups of civilians are reportedly being used to place new mines and other improvised explosive devices. This is whilst some of the guerrillas have been tasked to prevent civilians in the Wanni from travelling in groups to Vavuniya and adjoining areas.

The LTTE said on Friday that an estimated 7000 cattle and 5000 chicken were killed due to recent floods. Sporadic rains have continued early this week. The smell of rotting carcases in some areas was rendering them unfit for human habitation.

With the GCE O/L examination about to start, the LTTE said yesterday that education service is struggling to find adequate examination halls for the 10,000 GCE (OL) students waiting to sit the examination. "Loss of school buildings, due to displacement and again due to floods has made space a premium item for the schools. Education service even has to look into accommodation for the students sitting the exams because they are scattered all over the place due to displacement," they said in a statement.

"Increased cases of Malaria are another threat against which the health service and the community are struggling. So far 52 cases have been reported and yet no anti-malarial spray is permitted into Wanni," the statement added.

The main focus for the troops remains the recapture of the Kilinochchi town area. The closest to this one time political power centre of the guerrillas are three different flanks - 57 Division advancing from Akkarayan, Task Force 1 along the Paranthan-Kilinochchi Road and again troops of the same Division on the fringe of the Iranamadu irrigation tank. A breakthrough on any of these sectors will hinge on the troops overcoming the heavy resistance the guerrillas are now offering.

"We cannot place a time frame. It can be soon or later. They (the guerrillas) are throwing in everything to hold on to Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu areas," a senior Army officer in the Wanni sector told The Sunday Times on the telephone yesterday. He spoke on grounds of anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media.

The emerging ground realities highlighted by the ongoing military campaign is prompting the Army to expand further. Recruitment drives are being intensified. On December 20, the Army will set up a new Task Force 4, the precursor to another newly created Division. It is not clear where they will be deployed. Colonel D.C.S. Wanniaratchchi has been appointed Commanding Officer. He was earlier officiating Deputy General Officer Commanding the Army's 59 Division.

The vast extents of territory re-captured in the Wanni during military operations have prompted the need for Police Stations. Once such stations are opened, troops deployed in the area are to be moved to forward areas. With this in mind, a major recruitment drive is also to be launched by the Police. In order to ensure that large numbers are enrolled, the minimum qualifications for police officers to be recruited are to be lowered.

More troops and police officers will mean defence expenditure in the coming years will remain at a very high level. Besides their wages, procuring equipment for them will also entail considerable expenditure. Hence, war or no war, the nation will have to bear a heavy cost.

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