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The Situation Report

11th July 1999

Lots of promises, but precious little

By Iqbal Athas

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Twelve years ago, on the night of July 5, 1987, troops deployed in "Operation Liberation," then to re-capture Jaffna's Vadamaratchi sector, were resting at their temporary camp at Nelliady Central College.

Tiger guerrillas launched an attack with Mortars, Rocket Propelled Grenades and small arms fire. Whilst this went on, Black Tiger cadre "Captain Millar," drove a lorry fully laden with explosives, rammed the building causing severe damage. He perished in the explosion that left a crater large enough to bury a bus. That left 18 soldiers dead and 22 wounded.

Annually, for a whole long week, the LTTE observes "Black Tiger week" to commemorate "Captain Millar's" death and to remember other Black Tiger cadres who have died in action.

For the security forces and the Police, that has meant heightened security precautions. It was evident in the City and suburbs where check-points sprang up unexpectedly at various points. The intelligence community, as usual, sounded their regular warning that Tiger guerrillas may strike at targets ranging from VIPs, military installations to important economic ones.

A similar warning was issued early this year for the (fourth) anniversary of "Eelam War Three." That occasion passed off without any major incident. And until yesterday, "Black Tiger Week" has remained a quiet one. Today is the last day of observance of that week.

But guerrilla activity in most operational areas, both in the north and east, continued as usual. There was at least one incident that was both glaring and noteworthy. It happened at the Paranthan defences, one of the most vulnerable zones for Tiger artillery and mortar fire in the Elephant Pass sector, Sri Lanka's most difficult battleground (Situation Report June 20).

It was 7.30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 6, the second day of "Black Tiger Week." A group of soldiers who had remained awake the night before, manning the palm log and sand bag-roofed bunkers, were taking turns for morning ablutions. Tiger guerrilla mortar barrages began to fall. Two soldiers who were doing their morning wash dropped dead.

Three others were wounded. One of them, who lost both his legs, was in serious condition. Another was classed as P 2, injured but not in a serious condition. The third was P 3 or "walking wounded."

The men had to be evacuated to hospital. The soldier who lost both his legs and his injured colleagues had to be moved to a helipad near the 54 Division Headquarters at Elephant Pass. There are no ambulances in the Paranthan defences. The injured were usually moved in the trailer of a tractor to the helipad. On that day, the tractor/trailer was not available. It had been sent on another mission.

Young officers anxious to have the soldiers rushed for medical treatment immediately were busy with their communication sets. One of them managed to obtain a Double Cab, the official vehicle of Commanding Officer of the Eighth Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment, Major Sahampathy Ekanayake. He was away on leave and his second in command readily obliged.

The injured were bundled into the rear open area of the Cab and rushed to the helipad. They were flown to the Palaly Military Hospital where the soldier who lost his legs succumbed to his injuries. The other wounded soldier was flown to Colombo and is now at the National Hospital. The third, who was walking wounded, is now back to the defence lines.

The bodies of the two dead soldiers had to await the return of the tractor/trailer. They were transported to Elephant Pass in the open trailer.

Sad enough, the soldiers who died and the injured were among those who pleaded with me to help them obtain an ambulance. This was when Cameraman Alfred Silva and I visited Paranthan defences last month.

The relevant part of the Situation Report Special Assignment of June 20, where this was reported, is reproduced on this page. Alas, providing an ambulance to care for the injured in battle areas do not seem to be an item of high priority for the Army planners, particularly under the new Commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, who vowed to improve the soldier's lot upon taking over command. Needless to say that raised high expectations for Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya is known as a clean and honest man.

Whilst that reputation remains, there is disenchantment breeding on his avowed declaration to improve the lot of the soldiers. What more can a soldier expect than the assurance that he will be looked after when injured in the battlefield? The quick and safe recovery of casualties to a centre where immediate treatment and resuscitation can be given by medical teams is the most essential assurance for a soldier to risk himself in combat. Is the soldier's question one of asking too much? That is the safety and comfort of an ambulance.

This is when millions of rupees are being spent to provide luxury vehicles, air conditioning and other comforts to the military hierarchy in the safety and comfort of headquarters out of the battlefield area. Like all new brooms that initially sweep well, so do men entrusted with new appointments. Regretfully, they succumb to human frailities, either by attrition of office or other influences.

Pious pontifications do not seem to be matched by any action. This is not only in regard to ambulances but many other matters which directly contributes to the efficiency and morale of the soldier in the battlefield by those entrusted with command and planning responsibility.

Even yesterday, heavy mortar attacks on Paranthan defences left an Officer and three soldiers wounded. Senior officers were compelled to seek the help of their junior colleagues to transport the wounded to the helipad. This time too, it was a Double Cab.

A soldier who lost both his legs was lucky enough his immediate superiors obtained a Double Cab. If one was not readily available, he would have to wait until the designated tractor/trailer arrived. In this instance, that was a couple of hours later. That can be the time between life and death.

The military organisation, in its final sense, is geared to command and maintain men and material in the theatre of operations. The bottom line of this is to look after the men with a bayonet. Any failure to do so is at the expense of the military machine as a whole, which in turn leads to the weakening of the national security structure. It is no secret that such gross neglect of basic necessities is a contributory factor to desertions and even lack of response to recruitment.

If that was what the soldiers at Paranthan faced, just 28 miles south of them, at Mankulam, preparations to open the "gateway" between security forces controlled and uncontrolled areas last Friday ran into some snags. Both the Army and Tiger guerrillas appear to be locked in controversy over modalities that will now delay the opening. That is until such time the ICRC, who are acting as intermediaries, resolve the issues.

The main snag appears to be over the last security forces post civilians would be required to pass through before entering the uncontrolled area. Whilst the LTTE is learnt to have agreed to a "five kilometre stretch of no man's land," it is learnt to be demanding "right of access" to areas some 300 metres from the last Army point. The Army has objected to the move and is insistent that any Tiger guerrilla presence should be beyond the "no man's land." The LTTE response is now being awaited.

Discussing the opening of the new Mankulam "gateway" last Thursday in Mannar with Wanni Security Forces Commander, Major Lionel Balagalle, was Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte. He flew there accompanied by the service chiefs and a representative of the Police Chief to address officers. Later he spoke to soldiers and took part in a pooja arranged by the Army at the Thiruketheswaram Temple.

A visit to the Weli Oya defences thereafter turned out to be a case of third time lucky for Minister Ratwatte and his entourage. Soon after they arrived in an Mi-17 and Bell 212 helicopter, Tiger guerrillas fired 85 mm mortar rounds. Intelligence officials suspect Tiger guerrillas may have learnt of his presence by monitoring insecure communications used by troops. They believe a guerrilla cadre who infiltrated Weli Oya defences with a radio set was helping Tiger cadres to range the mortar fire. The Minister and his entourage seized a lull in the firing (presumed to be the time taken to shift directions) and left the area.

This is the third such time Minister Ratwatte and top most security officials have escaped death. The first was in December, 1997, when the pilot of his SLAF helicopter was disorientated and remained airborne until fuel ran out. He made a forced landing a few kilometres outside the western defences in Vavuniya. Minister Ratwatte's security detail had to destroy the helicopter to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Later all of them made a dramatic escape amidst a land and air search operation.

The second occasion was his visit to the battle areas in the Wanni soon after troops had completed "Operation Rivi Bala." Minister Ratwatte was leaving after speaking to civilians at a temple in Oddusuddan when Tiger guerrillas fired artillery. He was bundled into an armoured troop carrier which fled the area, firstly in the direction of Mullaitivu by mistake and later towards Nedunkerni.

Last Thursday's incident, like the two previous ones, proved the point that Minister Ratwatte (in battle fatigues), was often in the battlefront to execute PA Government's war against the Tiger guerrillas. Even if he did not plan and implement military campaigns any more, it made the point that he was there to oversee what has been approved by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who is now directing the war effort.

Yet, the questions remain whether the risks were worth it. It was not only his own life that Minister Ratwatte was placing in jeopardy but those top men in the country's security establishment. It does not take an expert to say it is not sound military strategy but sheer political bravado. The worry among senior military officials is that such forays would not make headlines all the time for they cannot be lucky all the time. A senior military official who did not wish to be identified described it as "offering the LTTE opportunities for a great moral victory when they are desperately in need of one."

There were other developments too in Mannar late this week. If India and Pakistan were fighting over disputed Kashmir, New Delhi was engaged in a friendly exercise with its southern neighbour, Sri Lanka.

Early this week, diplomatic contacts between New Delhi and Colombo saw a border crossing of sorts in the Palk Straits. The Ministry of Defence gave clearance for a Tamil Nadu family to enter Sri Lanka through the Palk Straits for the funeral of a relative who died due to gun fire. The man, said to be a fisherman, was found dead in a boat said to be drifting with four other colleagues. Navy officials say one of their patrol craft spotted the boat in distress and brought the occupants and the dead body to Talaimannar. They say they suspect the fisherman had died in a confrontation with Tiger guerrillas but there was no independent confirmation.

A Sri Lanka Navy patrol craft received the Indian family who arrived in an Indian Coast Guard vessel.

The widely read Tamilnet website only said that the Indian fisherman was killed when his boat was fired upon. This is the account that was posted in their website on July 9:

"The relatives of Soosai Alfred, the Indian fisherman killed when his boat was fired on, were brought to Mannar today to identify his body. They were brought to Kacchathivu island by the Indian Navy from Ramanathapuram, Mandapam, South India and transferred to a Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) boat at Pesaalai, Kachchathivu around 12.30 p.m. this afternoon.

"The relatives, Tharmaiya Augustine, 40, brother of Alfred, Kasmir Wilfred, 23, a relative, Amarthaiya Michaeldas, 35, an uncle, and Tharmaiya Edwin, 46, were taken by SLN LIEUTENANT Bandara and the Police to Mannar Hospital to identify the body.

"The police also took their statements.

"The men were taken back to Pesslai at 6.00 p.m. to be transferred back to the Indian navy boat.

"Although the fishermen had hoped to take the body back to India with them, they were unable to do so due to the state of Alfred's body, said sources.

"The last rites for the Catholic fisherman was performed by a Mannar Catholic priest.

"The District Judge Ilancheliyan has instructed the state to pay for Alfred's funeral".

Arriving in Colombo during a relative calm in the security situation is a top US military officer Lt. Gen. Edwin Smith, Commanding General of the United States Pacific Army. His command is part of the United States Pacific Command the largest unified command in the US defence structure. It covers more than 100 million square miles over half of the earth's surface. It stretches from the west coast of the Americas to the east coasts of Africa, and from the Arctic to the Antarctic. USPACOM is responsible for the Pacific, Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean, encompassing 43 countries.

Although the visit is being described as route familiarisation of countries in the region, the Ministry of Defence has made an elaborate programme for Lt. Gen. Smith. Among them will be a meeting on July 21 with top rung Army officials directing the separatist war in the north and east. He is also expected to meet the GOC of the Joint Operations Headquarters and the three service commanders. If today, Sunday, passes off without any incident, the seven day long "Black Tigers Week" this year, would have ended uneventfully. But that will continue to raise concerns of the security establishment on what the LTTE is preparing for. What that would be, when and where remains the biggest question as preparations to meet them are being reviewed weekly.


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