The end of a gruelling two-and-half-decade long phase of the separatist war is now nearer than ever before - and just as the Security Forces are inching towards a finality, the international pressure to stop the fighting has also reached a peak.
All that remains for the Army to re-capture is a ten square kilometre stretch of land that encompasses the No-Fire Zone -NFZ - (or the Civilian Safety Zone). The rectangular stretch is abounding the Nanthi Kadal lagoon on the west and the Indian Ocean on the east. Whilst Navy patrol craft skim the waters off the seas, four divisions of the Army have placed siege on the area. West and south of the lagoon are troops of the 59 Division. North-west and north are troops from the 53, 55 and 58 Divisions.
Early this week, commandos and Special Forces led an operation to bifurcate the long coastal stretch that had extended from south of Chalai, once a major Sea Tiger base, to Mullaitivu town. The stretch from near Chalai to Karayamullivaikai now remains under Army control. That successful breakthrough by the Army opened the flow of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) into Government held territory.
The influx, surprising enough, proved even the Government wrong. The government had originally estimated the number of IDPs trapped in the NFZ at not more than 70,000. It had said so to several foreign Governments and international organisations. Nevertheless, verified official accounts have now placed the figure at more than 109,000. The number kept rising as more and more IDPs poured in.
Besides their own tales of woe, over the past weeks returning IDPs have brought in a wealth of intelligence to the military. They spoke of how the guerrillas entrenched themselves amidst the civilians to fire artillery and mortars. They related how Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the once feared Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and his lieutenants kept shifting location hiding amidst one civilian group or another. That included the dreaded intelligence wing leader, Pottu Amman, a co-conspirator in the murder of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sea Tiger Leader Soosai. The question now is whether they remain trapped in the No-Fire Zone - or have escaped from the clutches of the advancing Security Forces.
|The Narayanan-Menon-Prasad team holding discussion with the President. Also seen (on the right) are Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Presidetial Secretary Lalith Weeratunga.
On Wednesday, a local TV interviewer asked Army Commander Sarath Fonseka about the fate of Prabhakaran. Lt. Gen. Fonseka, who is proud of the achievements of his troops, replied that his (and his troops) role was limited to the ground. There, like other Tiger guerrilla leaders, he was sure Prabhakaran would not get away. However, he noted that a sea-based role did not come within his purview virtually hinting that Prabhakaran could escape by sea. On Thursday, the Navy declared that patrolling in the seas had been intensified, and on Friday it said that Prabhakaran could not escape by sea. The measures made clear that stricter precautions were in place to prevent guerrilla leaders from getting away. Brigadier Shavindra Silva, General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Army's 58 Division told a group of reporters visiting Wanni on Friday he believed Prabhakaran was still in the No-Fire Zone, and the Army made it public that it had intercepted radio messages from Prabhakaran to his remaining cadres, but it did not give the location from where these messages could be coming.
Fighting in the past several weeks, has generated considerable attention to several matters. On Friday, the Associated Press (AP) news agency said in a Colombo datelined report: "Nearly 6,500 civilians have been killed and 14,000 wounded in fighting in Sri Lanka over the past three months." According to the report, "the figures are contained in a U.N. document circulated among diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka in recent days and given to The Associated Press by a foreign diplomat on Friday. The U.N. has declined to publicly release its casualty figures." The report added: "According to the U.N. figures, 6,432 civilians have been killed in the fighting since January 20 and another 13,946 have been wounded."
The report, however, did not explain how the the civilians were killed or injured or who was responsible. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama told Colombo-based heads of diplomatic missions that there were "zero casualties" caused by the Security Forces. He accused the Tiger guerrillas for killing and injuring civilians. They had fired at civilians who wanted to return to Government-held areas and used them as human shields, Bogollagama charged.
There is a strange paradox to the last vestige of the guerrillas, the No-Fire Zone along the Mullaitivu coast. Since over running the Mullaitvu military complex in 1996, the guerrillas had made the area one of their strongest fortresses. The headquarters of the Sea Tigers were located there. It is also on this coast that they unloaded vast quantities of military hardware to intensify their campaign against the Security Forces. Now, it is on the same soil they are being forced to end their military campaign to dominate territory.
Fears of an escalation in fighting as troops venture to re-capture the ten square kilometre NFZ have heightened concerns of many foreign Governments. Neighbouring India, which has been blowing both hot and cold in the past many months, sent two emissaries on Friday for meetings with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa. National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, who holds cabinet rank, flew in with Foreign Secretary, Shiv Shanker Menon in a special Indian Air Force jet on Friday for the meetings.
The hurried event came following a top-level conference in New Delhi on Thursday chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Until then, New Delhi has been preparing to receive parliamentarian Basil Rajapaksa as a special envoy of the President. Even India's High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Alok Prasad had flown there. However, on Thursday night, plans changed and the Government was told that the two emissaries would head to Colombo with an important message. However, Basil Rajapaksa nevertheless flew to New Delhi for a private visit.
The message delivered by the two emissaries was to explain the pressure applied on the Congress leaders in New Delhi by the Tamil Nadu politicians. They also expressed concern for the mounting civilian casualties. "The message delivered was fell short of reading the riot act," according to a diplomatic source. He went as far as saying that it was reminiscent of the days when then Indian envoy Jyothindra Nath Dixit conveyed to then President Junis Richard Jayewardene's India's "concerns" during Operation Vadamarachchi back in 1987. However, this time Government leaders did not appear unduly perturbed. They were conscious of the pressures on the Congress Government due to the ongoing parliamentary elections. A Government source declared, "Their position is quite understandable. We have had their solid backing for our war on terror against the LTTE. This was borne out only this week when Premier Manmohan Singh declared that the LTTE was a terrorist group. But the Congress Party has its own compulsions, its vote base in the South."
In fact, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Sri Lankan conflict has become an electoral issue. Rivals Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi, whose Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) is a constituent partner of the Congress-led Government, and Jeyaram Jeyalalitha, leader of the (AIADMK) have been hurling accusations at each other. Home Minister P. Chidambaram, a one time interlocutor between the guerrillas and the late J.R. Jayewardene administration, has declared that the Sri Lanka Government was more to blame for the current situation. Chidambaram, a one time Finance Minister was shifted to the Home Ministry after the terror attacks in Mumbai in November forced Home Mininster Shivraj Patel to resign. Chidambaram is contesting from a Southern Indian constituency and is facing the brunt of criticism of the ruling Congress from almost all the parties in Tamil Nadu state. Karunanidhi was making al types of contradictory statements from Chennai, the latest being calling Prabhakaran his "friend", and saying that Prabhakaran was not a terrorist, and then later saying that he disagreed with LTTE's military option to obtain a separate state.
In the ongoing elections to the Indian Parliament, Tamil Nadu, like every state will play a crucial part, and the role of regional parties like the DMK becomes even more important.
A group calling itself the Front against Terrorism held a rally in New Delhi earlier this week supporting the Sri Lankan Security Forces in their operations against the LTTE. This group marched along the streets of New Delhi with armed escort from police commandos and many believe this was an exercise engineered by the Congress Party itself. The party that only last week called for Prabhakaran to be extradited to India when captured to face his sentence for the murder of its revered leader Rajiv Gandhi, but after another call from Karunanidhi with a fresh ultimatum to New Delhi, it appears the Congress leaders have eventually caved in and are now forced to sacrifice their tacit support for the liquidation of the LTTE at the altar of electoral politics.
The influx of refugees also drew the attention of the US Government. During the April 21 noon briefing, acting State Department spokesman Robert Wood made a statement. Excerpts:
"I'm going to start off with a few points on Sri Lanka and the situation there.
"…..There continues to be firing from both sides into the no-fire zone, and we have credible reports of increasing casualties as a result of intensified military actions.
"We call on both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to refrain from indiscriminate fire and shelling into and from the no-fire zone. We understand there have been incidents of the LTTE firing on and otherwise attacking civilians as they attempt to leave the no-fire zone. We call on the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the conflict area and respect their freedom of movement.
"We also strongly support the UN secretary general's call for UN staff to be allowed into the no-fire zone to facilitate relief operations and evacuation of civilians. We urge the Government of Sri Lanka to allow the UN and the ICRC local and international staff access to all sites where internally-displaced persons coming out of the no-fire zones are being processed and provided shelter and other services. We urge the Government of Sri Lanka to pursue diplomacy, to advocate the release of the remaining civilians from the no-fire zone. So that's what I have, and I'm ready to take your questions.
QUESTION: Has she (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) been involved or has Assistant Secretary Boucher been involved directly in the last - I mean, the last time I'm aware that she did something on this was when she had a meeting with the permanent secretary of the Sri Lankan foreign ministry.
I think about ten days ago, right? And it's just clear that whatever you are doing has not succeeded in persuading the Sri Lankan authorities to stop their offensive, or pause it, to let more of the people - I mean, there was this brief pause, I know, of 24 hours, but then they've resumed, you know, fighting immediately afterwards. So this isn't working even though some people have gotten out. And I'm wondering if you are escalating it beyond just having the ambassador be in touch with the local authorities.
MR. WOOD: Well, look, the subject of the violence in Sri Lanka is something that's come up quite a bit. I remember when the Secretary had a meeting with the Norwegian foreign minister, they discussed the issue. She's touched on it in various meetings that she's had with her counterparts. I can't give an exact - I can't remember exactly with whom she raised it, but I do know that she has raised it quite a bit. She's very concerned. Again, it's not just the United States. It's a number of other countries that have an interest in seeing this conflict end. And we're all trying to marshal our resources, cooperate more closely to see what we can do. But you're right, the government and the LTTE have not been heeding our calls. And we're going to continue to push. This is an important foreign policy item that we have to deal with, and we'll continue. We want to make sure, as I said yesterday, that civilians are not any further in harm's way, and we're going to continue to work the issue.
QUESTION: It seems to me that there is a presumption - I mean, you said twice "as the conflict comes to an end," and you talked about preparations for after it's over. You know, obviously this is an incredibly long insurgency. Insurgencies typically are not resolved, you know, militarily. And I wonder why you think that after the - it seems as if you assume that the Sri Lankan military is going to be able to extirpate every Tamil Tiger and every Tamil Tiger supporter, and then the conflict is over. And I don't see why you make that assumption. Why is it not - is it not quite conceivable that the level of violence that is now occurring will simply sow the seeds for continuing or renewed conflict?
MR. WOOD: Well, I can't make that kind of judgment, Arshad (Reuters State Department Correspondent). I think none of us can really make that judgment at this point. Again, the violence is at an unacceptable level. There's no question about it. But the important thing to remember here is that the international community is very focused on trying to end this conflict, and trying to push the parties in a direction that is going to not only end the hostilities, but also protect the civilians because we are very concerned about the situation on the ground. ... So we're trying to use all of our diplomatic tools to convince both sides of the need to protect civilians and to make sure that humanitarian supplies get in. It's difficult.
It showed the US was now gearing to take a tougher line on the Sri Lanka Government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed this when she testified before the House Appropriations Sub Committee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programmes this week. M. McMahon, a member closely associated with a pro-Government lobby of Sinhalese expatriates in Staten Island near New York asked about how she saw an end to the conflict in Sri Lanka. He perhaps expected a response that would please his Sri Lankan friends. However, Clinton, was critical of the Government even referring to the LTTE as "insurgents" rather than "terrorists". It would seem the Obama administration was taking a different approach to a somewhat more pro-Sri Lankan Government line taken by its Republican predecessors in the Bush administration.
Yesterday, US President Barrack Obama's office formally called upon the Sri Lanka Government to stop shelling the Safe Zone and stop blocking international aid groups and media from accessing those civilians who have managed to escape. Having authorized bombing raids over Afghanistan, Obama's office called for parties to abide by international humanitarian laws.
Only a day earlier, the US, in an unusual move, released satellite imagery of the Mullaitivu area. Some observers believed it was a message that despite international organisations and the media being banned from the area, the US still had access to what was going on. The image released by the State Department showed the civilian "safe zone."
In a separate move, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner proposed the conduct of a joint relief operation with Britain to help civilians. Kouchner is reported to have told a TV interview he proposed to discuss the relief operation with his British counterpart. The remarks have drawn an angry response from Sri Lanka.
But with international pressure mounting on Sri Lanka, and its diplomatic corps unable to fend off this pressure with inept appointees in several key foreign missions, and the lack of political direction from the Colombo Foreign Ministry, the question is how long the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration can keep them at bay and give the time and space for the Security Forces to 'finish the job' at hand in the remaining areas of the Safe Zone.
News yesterday was that the Indians had done - for the second time since Operation Vadamarachchi in 1987 - tried to give a life-line to Prabhakaran and the LTTE by asking the Sri Lanka Government to go-slow in the fighting. Sri Lanka once again has become the victim of the compulsions of India's internal politics.
Yesterday Chidambaran was quoted as saying to Karunanidhi that the Sri Lankan Government will make an announcement "in a day or two" about a ceasefire. Political observers were quick to point out that Colombo had asked that they wait till yesterday's Western provincial council election was concluded to make the announcement.
A short official statement on the Narayana-Menon visit from New Delhi referred to their talks with President Rajapaksa in Colombo and how they expressed their concerns of India on the humanitarian crisis resulting from the on-going operations in Northern Sri Lanka. Then, the punch-line came in the final two terse sentences of the statement;
"The President of Sri Lanka was receptive to our concerns.
"We are hopeful of a positive response".
Has India done it again to Sri Lanka? Has it given yet another life-line to Prabhakaran and the LTTE? We will know if and when any such announcement is made by the Rajapaksa Government in the next day or two.