Situation Report

6th July 1997

Prabha planning a third counter attack?

By Iqbal Athas

A month studded with many events

The second phase of LTTE's "Operation Do or Die" (on June 24) has not only stalled "Operation Jaya Sikurui" temporarily, but has also, for the second time, prevented a link up of the two advancing columns.

Troops from the 55 Division which moved along the A 9 (Vavuniya-Kilinochchi) highway and the supporting flank that fought their way from Nedunkerny, are still at the doorstep of Puliyankulam. In a bid to prevent them from advancing, the LTTE was firing continuous artillery and mortar barrages, ironically using the artillery, mortars and ammunition captured from the Army itself. Troops who have taken cover under defensive positions were waiting till the next move. This is whilst operational plans are being modified.

Even if a "world exclusive" in the state media exhorted that the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was "trying to flee the country in the face of a fierce onslaught", reports from the Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence, spoke otherwise. They said Prabhakaran was planning a third counter attack. A possible strike on the head of the western flank of 55 Division or at the tail of the 53 Division at Nedunkerny was most likely, they warned.

Since they were not sure whether this was a deception or not, all troops were placed on red alert - a high state of security preparedness. Heightening this move was the advent of "Black July" - the month which marks two significant events in in the LTTE calendar. One was yesterday (July 5, 1987) when "Captain Millar", the first Black Tiger guerrilla carried out a suicide attack on the Nelliady Central College where troops engaged in "Operation Liberation" were billeted. The other is July 23 - the 14th anniversary of the country's worst ethnic violence (See box story on this page).

In the past two days, tight security measures were in force in the City and suburbs. The Bandaranaike International Airport was brought under heavy security. So were a string of other key installations in and around Colombo.

Military Intelligence also learnt that Prabhakaran had sent his intelligence wing leader, Pottu Amman, to the east on a mission. The man who is most wanted in India for plotting the assassination of late Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi, has been seen reconnoitering the Vakarai area (north of Valachenai in the Batticaloa district) for a whole week now. In the past when he was seen hovering around Vakarai, LTTE triggered off incidents in the City. It was known that he made contact with LTTE cadres who found it easy to travel to Colombo from Batticaloa.

Whilst attempting another counter attack on "Operation Jaya Sikurui", is the LTTE planning a major strike in the east or in the City too ? There were very strong indications that Prabhakaran, who was very much in the Wanni, was busy planning.

Two successive counter attacks stalling the military offensive temporarily and twice preventing a link up at Puliyankulam was certainly not to the planning of the man who is running the country's military machine against the LTTE - the Deputy Minister of Defence, General Anuruddha Ratwatte.

He did not hide his feelings when he spoke to senior military and police officials at the Eight Brigade Headquarters in Vavuniya. General Ratwatte who helicoptered to Vavuniya in the company of the three service commanders and the Inspector General of Police emphasised the need to motivate the troops and push ahead with the offensive.

He ordered that the Anuradhapura based Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) be shifted immediately to Vavuniya. General Ratwatte was of the view that the top most military officials should be closer to the theatre of conflict. As a result of the order, besides the JOH, the Tactical Headquarters of the Overall Operations Commander (OOC), General Asoka Jayawardena, is also being moved to Vavuniya.

It was not only matters military that figured at the conference. There were references to The Sunday Times too, particularly to my colleague, Taraki and my own self over references and comments concerning the conduct of "Operation Jaya Sikurui". One senior Army official expressed the view that media personnel should be allowed to visit the battle areas and report.

The proposal received a welcome response from General Ratwatte. "It was I who stopped them from coming. If you all want, I will allow them to come," he declared. The idea was to allow small, hand picked groups access to battle areas.

At least one senior Army official thought it worthwhile to express his personal opinion. Jocularly or otherwise, he suggested who should be left out.

A high ranking Police official was also not receptive to the idea of allowing the media to visit the battle areas. Not surprisingly since some groups of Policemen assigned for duties in areas re-captured have deserted their positions.

Suggestions to keep the media out, quite clearly, underscored a long persistent malaise in the security system, where they expect and want the media to report the war as they wish it to be.

Needless to say the whole issue boils down to an attempt to sweep under the carpet lapses, serious shortcomings and actions involving accountability - issues which a few unenlightened in uniform do not want publicised and is what the public (on whose behalf the war is being fought) should and must know. At long last, the Government, obviously, has realised the futility of shutting down the media and hence rejected recommendations of a top Army official to clamp down a censorship. Perhaps the people of Sri Lanka would have known very little of the counter attacks on "Operation Jaya Sikurui" if that happened.

Indeed even now the details of the Mullaitivu debacle (one year ago this month) are still not fully known to the public of this country, even though the LTTE version of it is freely exhibited on video tapes, colour photographs and propaganda leaflets.

The media continues to remain debarred from the theatre of conflict in the north and east although hand picked groups are taken on guided tours. The only official channel are news releases put out by the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence.

In this backdrop, the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan De S. Daluwatte, has detailed a team of officers to track down military personnel speaking to the media. It is an open secret in the upper echelons of the Army that the telephones of some suspected officers have been placed under surveillance.

At least one Army official whose responsibilities included carrying out psychological operations against the enemy failed in his attempt last week to have the telephone lines (and even the residences) of some journalists specialising in reporting the war being kept under surveillance. He felt this was the best way to "catch the culprits." He was politely reminded that such action, which usually covered threats to national security, needed the approval of the Commander-in-Chief, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. It is not yet clear whether he has reported his inability to carry out the job to whoever tasked him.

One would be unreasonable to complain about military hierarchy keeping tabs on their rank and file. It has become essential for a number of reasons. Such surveillance has led to the arrest of other ranks on suspicion that they passed on information to the enemy.

But selectively targeting the journalists not only smacks of vengeance but is a clear attempt to fight the war on two fronts - one the LTTE and, the other, the media.

Like in the past years, the cat and mouse game will go on. The only reason that prompted some reference here is to highlight how some insidious attempts are being made to deny the public some aspects of the war effort they should know.

If the restrictions now being imposed is to ensure the secrecy of operational and security related matters, then it is totally understandable and should be supported. There is no question about it.

But if it is to deny the public information of what is happening, whether it be glory, defeat or further vested interest, then the curbs are anti national and Draconian. As the "Operation Jaya Sikurui" remains temporarily stalled, the media witch hunt is on.

This is while the Overall Operations Commander (OOC), Major General Asoka Jayawardena, has named a three member Court of Inquiry to probe the two LTTE counter attacks on "Operation Jaya Sikurui".

It is headed by Major General E.H. Samaratunga, Deputy Overall Operations Commander and comprises Brigadier J.P.A. Jayawardena, a former Director, Army Quartering and now in charge of sports and Colonel T.T.R de Silva, Director, Psychological Operations at Army Headquarters. Lt. Col. Eranjan de Silva, who is attached to the Joint Operations Headquarters, will function as the Secretary.

The Eelam conflict appears to have grounded itself to a stalemate, both politically and militarily. Politically the moderate Tamil groups are striving to come to a common understanding of a political approach. They are also trying to come to terms with Muslim groups, particularly in respect of the eastern province.

The two mainstream national parties lack any common understanding to this all important national issue and are still continuing their dialogue on political packages which are not likely to realise public support. To add to the confusion, some non governmental organisations are calling for third party mediation - a cry seemingly supported by some western democracies.

In this political confusion, the real politics is the LTTE factor around which all the political parties are going round in circles.

This state of political confusion does not help the formulation of clear military strategies except for the simplistic objective of regaining control of territory lost to the LTTE. This is exactly the catch 22 situation the security forces are placed in. Regaining of territory means to secure it. This means the security forces must extend itself with its present resources to the extent of being open to LTTE infiltration and counter attack.

To secure any regained territory with a thin military deployment, the population must be politically behind the Government and its agents. To achieve this, there must be a viable and tangible political objective which today is not available.

In this situation, the defeat of the LTTE militarily assumes a priority for it is a stumbling block for the achievement of democratic options by non militant Tamil political parties as well as other mainstream parties.

Hence any military strategy must surely be designed towards that objective. The opening of the A 9 (Vavuniya-Kilinochchi) highway and establishing a main supply route (MSR) to the peninsula whilst no doubt is militarily significant, its larger importance is political. On the other hand, marginalising and or defeat of the LTTE, both in the Wanni and in the eastern province, needs to be balanced as an alternate option. This would mean a delay to the MSR strategy.

Over extending the security forces on the A9 highway can prove to be more expensive to establish and maintain than running the civilian and military logistics by maritime lines of communications. It could also prove politically expensive should the eastern province deteriorate further into LTTE control for the lack of adequate security forces thinned out for "Operation Jaya Sikurui".

It thus appears that today, we are both politically and militarily at the cross-roads of options.

A month studded with many events

For both, the security forces and the LTTE, the month of July is studded with many significant events in the 15 1/2 year old separatist war.

The most important for the security forces was the worst military disaster in Sri Lankan history - over running of the Mullaitivu Military Base. On July 17, over 1300 soldiers were killed and billions of rupees worth of military hardware were lost.

The LTTE has named the month "Black July". On July 5, 1987, Black Tiger cadre "Captain Millar" drove a truck laden heavily with explosives into the compound of Nelliady Central College. Troops which were engaged in phase one of "Operation Liberation" capturing Vadamaratchi (an event that was precursor to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement and the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka) were billeted.

Then came the unfortunate ethnic violence that broke out on July 23 after 13 soldiers were killed in a land mine explosion in Tinnelvely in the Jaffna peninsula on July 13, 1983. The month came to be designated "Black July" for some of the horrendous events that left a large number of Tamils dead and billions worth of their property destroyed.

Over the years the LTTE has staged attacks in the month of July to "commemorate" the two events.

On July 13, 1989, the LTTE assassinated A. Amirthalingam, the TULF leader. Just three days later, in the same year, the leader of the People's Liberation Organisation of Thamileelam (PLOT), Uma Maheswaran was shot dead in Colombo.

On July 25, 1993, LTTE attacked the Janakapura detachment in the Weli Oya defence complex.

Soon after the security forces launched "Operation Leap Forward" on July 9, the LTTE launched "Puli Paachal" (Tiger Leap) on July 14. They shot down an Argentine built Pucara fixed wing bomber. Just two days later, Sea Tiger cadres launched a suicide attack on the Sri Lanka Navy command ship "Edithara" just outside the Kankesanthurai harbour.

But a major attempt by the LTTE on July 28, 1995 to over run the cluster of security forces camps in Weli Oya were repulsed.

On July 4, 1996, then Minister of Housing and Construction, Nimal Siripala de Silva, escaped death miraculously when a bomb exploded at Stanley Road, Jaffna. Brigadier Ananda Hamangoda and retired SSP, Carlyle Dias, were among those killed.

On July 19, 1996, LTTE attacked and destroyed the Navy gun boat "RANAVIRU". On July 24, the same year, a bomb explosion on the Colombo - Aluthgama train at Dehiwala Railway Station killed more than 60 civilians.

Go to the Fifth Column

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to the Situation Report Archive