A hurriedly dug up bund and thousands of trapped civilians have now become the 'fortress' for Tiger guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his senior cadres.
Contrary to reports that he had fled Sri Lanka, The Sunday Times has learnt from authoritative sources that he is very much in the Civilian Safe Zone, the CSZ. There were reliable reports that senior leaders close to him were making plans to surreptitiously move him out from the area. It could either be to a location outside Sri Lanka or to a jungle area in the south. Measures to prevent him leave are under way, though making an iron ring is not possible due to the scarcity of troops to patrol every inch of territory.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE) leader, who once pledged to set up a separate state in Sri Lanka, sought refuge in the CSZ after the guerrillas suffered one of their worst and humiliating defeats this week. Troops had for days surrounded a stretch of land east of Puthukkudiyiruppu. Early this week, they closed in to mount a fierce assault leaving behind one of the biggest death tolls. The bodies of 241 guerrillas were found in the area. The Army recovered over 200 T-56 assault rifles and two 30 mm Artillery Guns. Army sources say 127 guerrillas surrendered, some of them senior cadres. A select group was being put through an intense course of interrogation.
This week's encounter has dealt a severe blow for guerrilla cadres operating on the ground. However, security sources say their ocean-going arm, the Sea Tigers were relatively intact. Only a section of them had suffered casualties in confrontations at sea. Mindful of this reality, naval authorities have taken added precautions to prevent an outward movement of guerrillas through the northeastern coast. Earlier, new measures were put in place, particularly in the Palk Straits, the divide between India and Sri Lanka. This was after reports that groups of guerrillas had infiltrated the southern Indian state of Kerala.
|Rajapaksa with Libyan leader Gaddafi at a Royal banquet on Thursday in Tripoli
The fact that Prabhakaran and his senior leaders have taken refuge amidst the civilians was indeed a paradox. It is the cause of these civilians that the LTTE pledged to espouse through a separate state. It is statedly for them that the LTTE ran a virtual parallel administration in the Wanni in the past years with its own "law courts, police, tax collection machinery, prisons" among others. But now, it is those civilians whom they have taken hostage. Despite both domestic and international appeals to release them, the LTTE needs them as its biggest shield. Estimates of the civilians trapped vary from 70,000 (the official Sri Lanka Government count) to more than 150,000 (based on estimates by United Nations and other international organizations).
This situation has become the dilemma for both the security authorities and the international community. Advancing to seize control of some 18.5 square kilometres where the CSZ is located has become a tricky issue for the security authorities. "We have to move very cautiously to avoid any civilian casualties. Otherwise, by now we could have finished the task," says a senior Army officer on the telephone from the battle zone.
He said four Divisions of the Army have blockaded the CSZ. Troops of the 55 Division were positioned in the northern edge, 58 as well as 53 on the western edge and 55 Division on the southern side. Off the coast that stretches southwards from Chalai through Puthumattalan to Mullaitivu, the Navy has placed siege in the seas. The officer said that troops of the 58 and 53 Divisions were separated from the CSZ by only a kilometre, most of the stretches being marsh land. "The new sand mounds face the troops in this sector. We know their exact locations and there is further confirmation from pictures obtained through Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). However, we are very cautious in the light of the heavy civilian concentration there," he added.
In the light of this scenario senior military commanders did not pressure their troops to complete the remaining part of the war before the National New Year. For obvious reasons future plans of the Army cannot be discussed, but one view expressed by most senior officers is that their tasks would be completed either by late April or early May. Thereafter, they say, it would be in the Government's hands to focus on the post-conflict phase.
But the current scenario has raised serious concerns for the international community. Some of the countries are worried that in the Army's final push and the LTTE's remaining 'do or die' resistance could lead to larger civilian casualties. Ahead of his departure to on an official visit to Libya, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was to re-assure United States Ambassador Robert Blake that his Government was very conscious about the need to protect civilians. The meeting came in the backdrop of allegations that the Sri Lanka Government had not adhered to assurances given to the international community over civilian safety, a charge which it strongly denies, and prior to the Ambassador being associated in a tele-conference with outgoing US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher and the Tamil expatriates living in the US on the Sri Lankan conflict.
It was also the subject matter of discussion during a conference call by members of the Donor Co-chairs - United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway. Their envoys in Colombo and their top officials in the respective capitals took part in the discussion. It was left for Boucher, to issue an official statement. This is what it said:
"Representatives of the Tokyo Co-Chairs (U.S., European Union, Norway and Japan) convened a conference call this morning to discuss the humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher participated for the United States.
"Co-Chair members expressed urgent concern for the safety of more than a hundred thousand people trapped by the conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a narrow strip of land in northern Sri Lanka. They call on the Tamil Tigers to permit freedom of movement for the civilians in the area. They discussed the need for the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to respect the 'no fire zone' and protect the civilians trapped there.
"They reaffirmed the need to stop shelling into the 'no fire zone' to prevent further civilian casualties. They stressed the importance of a humanitarian pause and of ensuring that adequate supplies of food, water and medicine reach the civilians in the zone. Assistant Secretary Boucher and the other Co-Chair representatives discussed how to best end the futile fighting without further bloodshed. The conversation took place during a conference call initiated by the State Department."
Last Wednesday, there was some confusion in Colombo's diplomatic community over newer developments. Some who tried to reach senior government leaders found them unavailable. This raised questions whether this was a move to parry critical issues until they tide over the current phase of the fighting. However, government officials once again strongly denied there was any such move.
President Rajapaksa was in Tripoli and returned to Colombo only on Friday. His delegation included senior military officials, the Chief of Staff of the Army, Major General G.A Chandrasiri and Rear Admiral Tisara Samarasinghe. In an unrelated development, the Government also took the unprecedented step of posting a serving Army officer as Sri Lanka's Deputy High Commissioner in Malaysia. For this purpose, Brigadier Udaya Perera, until recently Director of Operations at Army Headquarters was on Thursday promoted as a supernumerary Major General. The senior officer from the Gajaba Regiment is to be seconded from service to officiate as the Deputy High Commissioner. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is on a visit to the United States. The Government is also incensed by the British Government's persistence in continuing with the appointment of its former Defence Secretary, Des Browne as special envoy to the Sri Lankan issue. Only a week earlier, Foreign Secretary David MilIiband had told the House of Commons about Browne's pursuits in this new position. In fact, he has been invited by some Labour MPs with a large constituency of former Sri Lankans to discuss issues.
Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama charged in Parliament that Browne had participated in a recent London conference, organized by "a front of the LTTE terrorist group" at which it was resolved to "establish a sovereign state of Tamil Eelam - the doctrine of the LTTE, proscribed by Britain - and his utterances in that forum." Bogollagama said on Tuesday that the British Government had failed to "adhere to the time-honoured tradition in diplomatic practice of consultation and following the procedure in making" Browne's appointment.
The remarks came as Canada's National Post, a newspaper that has supported Sri Lanka Government's stance in the ongoing military campaign against Tiger guerillas, quoted Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon as saying , "We've asked [the United Nations] for an immediate ceasefire. We're very worried, of course, of the hostilities that are taking place but particularly worried for the civilians that are in the combat zone [in Vanni]."
The newspaper added: "Mr. Cannon rejected a call by the Sri Lankan high commissioner to Canada to crack down on the protesters because they were waving banners that depict a tiger in front of a pair of crossed guns. 'It's not up to me to put an end to protest. People are allowed to protest in Canada. We live in a democracy. People are allowed to go and express their ideas, their concerns'"
In London, demonstrators gathered yesterday outside Trafalgar square to demand the British Government to call a halt to the military offensive in Sri Lanka. They were summoned by mobile text messages by the pro-LTTE organisers of the rally. Unfortunately for them, the British are on Easter vacation now, but they did receive some media play with their theatrics of jumping into the Thames river earlier in the week, a fast-unto-death etc.,
Bogollagama told the Sri Lanka Parliament that countries that have banned the LTTE as 'terrorist organisations' were not fulfilling their obligations by implementing these laws. British bobbies watched while people waved the LTTE flag claiming it to be their 'national flag', or the 'Tamil flag'.
The Thames Buddhist Centre had to cancel its Sinhala New Year celebrations because the local police said they were unable to give the required security. Reports said that Ports and Aviation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, the President's elder brother was scheduled to participate in these celebrations.
Many Sri Lankans who were not supporting the pro-LTTE demos this week were unhappy with the official response to these moves saying statements made in the Sri Lankan Parliament were hardly known in Britain, and the High Commission was not up to the task.
Protests by pro LTTE groups have also been held in Australia, Norway, Germany and in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. An unrepentant apologist of the LTTE, Vaiko has drawn some attention for himself by being slapped with sedition charges for suggesting that India's unitary status could be compromised should the Congress government continue to extend what he calls support for the Sri Lankan military offensive.
India has long been jittery about a pan-Tamil movement ever since the southern Tamil Nadu state erupted with a secessionist movement back in the 1960s. Even its support for the LTTE in its early days, was careful to ensure that it did not spill into any form of Tamil nationalism in Tamil Nadu.
Here in Sri lanka, Opposition United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe fired a political salvo this week by challenging President Rajapaksa to a public debate on the issue of who tried to negotiate with the LTTE.
Speaking at an election rally at Colombo Central, Wickremesinghe said that N. Vidyatharan, the editor of the Sudar-Oli newspaper now in police custody for alleged terrorist links, was used by Rajapaksa to establish links with the LTTE. It was those people who did not like such links that got him arrested, he said. "But the person who got his services to negotiate with the LTTE is called a national saviour and I'm called the traitor", he said.
Just when the public felt a politically exciting debate at the highest levels was due, Information Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa threw cold water into the issue by giving what seemed a pretty lame excuse. He said that the President did not have the time to waste debating such issues. Usually, the tactic is for the challenged to tell the challenger that he or she is most willing to debate the point, and later wriggle out of it. In this case, Wickremesinghe had asked for internationally accepted rules of debate. That could have been a point on which no agreement could have been reached.
The Wickremesinghe salvo comes in the wake of another accusation by the government against the UNP saying that it undermined the loan asked by the Sri Lanka government from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The UNP was slow to react to this accusation made on the floor of the House, and in fact, is yet to say anything substantial to this charge. It is known that Wickremesinghe had met the IMF delegation that was in Colombo the previous week to discuss the modalities of the US$ 1.9 billion (Rs. 200,000 Million) loan for Sri Lanka. UNP circles say that Wickremesinghe had told the visiting delegation when they met him in his office, that the government has every right to negotiate the loan and that the UNP would make its stand known after the government entered into an agreement with the IMF for the loan.
The problem with the UNP seems to be that its reaction time to government accusations is so long that the government always gets the better of them with the public, and is always on the defensive. The Wickremesinghe challenge for a debate with Rajapaksa is an exception, where the former went to the extent of calling the President a "coward" if he ducks the debate.
With that, the political nonagathe (period of inactivity during the festive season) will not be too long, as immediately after the New Year, the race for the April 25 Western provincial council election will resume. And the New Year fireworks will continue with the political fireworks until then.