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The Situation Report

8th August 1999

Troops and Tigers meet face to face in Mankulam

By Iqbal Athas

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We hereby assure and guarantee to maintain the Civilian Safety Zone in between the existing FDLs of the SLA (Sri Lanka Army) and the LTTE on the A-9 (Kandy-Jaffna highway). Similarly, the SLA too has to provide a guarantee and ensure that no untoward incidents take place in this Civilian Safety Zone.

We request of you, therefore, to proceed making necessary arrangements with the SLA to open this land route without any further delay, and bring about a satisfactory solution to the current humanitarian crisis.

That was how the LTTE declared it was prepared to open a route northwards through Mankulam (along the A-9 Kandy-Jaffna highway) to facilitate the movement of food convoys, civilians, the sick and members of Non Governmental Organisations to areas in the Wanni which the security forces do not control. Officially, they are referred to as "uncleared areas."

The message came in the form of a letter S.P. Tamilselvan, Head of Political Wing of the LTTE, sent to the Army through Max Hadorn, Head of Delegation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), last Tuesday. He urged the Army to "proceed making arrangements without any further delay…"

That LTTE response appears to have ended a six week long impasse between the Army and Tiger guerrillas, over a mutually agreeable 'gateway' between Army held areas of the Wanni and beyond. This was the result of a closure of the previous route from Uyilankulam (along Vavuniya-Mannar Road) from June 25, following the launch of a phase of "Operation Rana Gosa."

Both, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, whose daily routine has become hectic with the 50th anniversary celebrations of the SLA under way, and his Chief of Staff, Major General Lionel Balagalle, Security Forces Commander – Wanni, received the texts of the LTTE letter.

Even if they were not reflected in letters they sent SLA, radio intercepts suggested there was some glee on the part of the guerrilla higher ranks. If they selected Mankulam from three different routes, they rejected a call by the Army that the 'gateway' should encompass a Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ), five kilometres long and one kilometre wide. This was on the grounds the guerrillas would be forced to withdraw from their existing defensive positions.

For the same reasons, the LTTE also rejected an alternative 'gateway,' with a similar CSZ, westwards along Mankulam – Thunukkai Road. And now, they claimed, the SLA has concurred with the LTTE position that the CSZ should cover the existing distances between their respective defences. That was the cause for the glee and was perhaps not without some justification.

But the Army had other reasons for their decision. Last Monday, Maj. Gen. Balagalle told Colombo based diplomats, and later a news conference, "the plight of the civilians and the need to provide immediate relief, Army believes, should receive priority over other important considerations including safe passage of civilians." He added "The SLA cannot allow this unfortunate situation to prolong whilst the suffering of the civilians continue."

As exclusively reported in these columns last week, Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, briefed the Colombo based diplomats on the situation in the Wanni. Both Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya and Maj. Gen. Balagalle also gave their own accounts.

In that backdrop, the Army did not accept Mr. Tamilselvan's letter in toto and proceed with the arrangements pronto. In a response last Wednesday, Maj. Gen. Balagalle, is learnt to have sounded a strong note of caution to the LTTE.

Since the Tiger guerrillas are not in favour of a five kilometre long and one kilometre wide Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ), Maj. Gen. Balagalle had asserted that the responsibility for any untoward incident in the crossing area would rest on the LTTE. That included deaths/injuries to civilians, security forces personnel, LTTE members and damage to vehicles/property, which may result in the closure of the route. He had also assured that the Army also would take steps to ensure such incidents do not occur.

That is not all. Maj. Gen. Balagalle's letter on Wednesday called upon the LTTE to:

o Guarantee security in the CSZ 24 hours of the day and seven days of the week. A similar guarantee was offered by the SLA.

o The breadth of the Civilian Safety Zone to be 500 metres on either side of the A-9 highway. The specific areas to be demarcated .

By Thursday night, Mr Tamilselvan had responded to Maj. Gen. Balagalle. The LTTE was agreeable and would abide by the two conditions above. A written communication had arrived.

On Friday, in the presence of officials of the ICRC, a group of soldiers were deployed to clear mines upto a short distance on either side of the road. The exercise turned out to be a sour experience for the Army. They were at Mankulam accompanied by an ICRC official and were ready to begin work at 9 a.m. However, approval from the LTTE did not arrive until 11.45 a.m. Thereafter, the soldiers cleared the route to a distance of 50 metres.

Interestingly, this was the first face to face contact between a group of Army soldiers, LTTE leaders and ordinary cadres. Observing the soldiers clearing the mines were Karikalan, Jeyam, Ramesh and Rabat – all leaders now deployed in the Wanni. An LTTE video cameraman kept his camera rolling. Similarly, an Army soldier was also filming the LTTE side, though at one point objections were raised by Karikalan. Army soldiers noted that there were elements of psy ops the way group after group of armed LTTE cadres marched past the area, ostensibly moving for some task or the other. There were well built young men. But the soldiers noted that a large number were child cadres and the contrast was striking.

If the ICRC official on the Army side was close to the soldiers, their counterpart, it turned out was not with the LTTE. He had been positioned some distance away and it took a while for messages to filter down. The soldiers finished their task Friday at around 2 p.m. and withdrew from the area. The two sides waved at each other.

An interesting feature of the Mankulam 'gateway' is the fact that the defensive positions of both the Sri Lanka Army and the LTTE stand cheek by jowl, with just a mere 100 metres of "no man's land' in between.

Yesterday, the LTTE turned down moves by the Army to open the new route and the Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ) from today (Sunday). In view of this the route will now open tomorrow (Monday).

By yesterday, over 2600 civilians have registered with the Security Forces Headquarters - Wanni, Vavuniya, to leave for the uncleared areas. However, the LTTE has refused to accept the entire lot. They are now to be sent in batches. Tomorrow 20 food convoys will leave through the CSZ into uncleared areas of the Wanni

Yesterday, two large craters created by artillery fire had to be filled to allow vehicles to move out of the Civilian Safety Zone. Army planned to move earth moving equipment to the area yesterday to complete the job.

The Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence had made elaborate plans for a media team to visit the area to record the event. This has been delayed. Besides conducted tours arranged by the Ministry and the Army, a strict ban continues to be in force on visits by media personnel to operational areas in the Wanni. Recent requests by media personnel to travel to the area have been rejected by the Ministry of Defence.

The first to exit via the new Civilian Safety Zone, if all goes well, will be over 2000 civilians who have been stranded in Vavuniya since the closure of the Uyilankulam route. Most of them arrived in Vavuniya for various chores. That included making telephone calls to relatives abroad, encashing foreign exchange remittances from banks and purchase of medicine. The coming week will also see the return to Vavuniya of a smaller group of civilians who were stranded in the uncleared Wanni.

However, the LTTE has made it known on Friday they will not accept the entire group of over 2,000 stranded in Vavuniya on the same day. Hence, Army officials are making preparations to send them in small batches, most likely to be around 500. This will mean weeks before the entire lot of stranded civilians return to their homes in the Wanni. That is because buses for their transport from Vavuniya to Mankulam had to be arranged by the Government Agent. He is said to be finding it difficult to do so on a daily basis since that would bring the public transport system to a complete halt.

From next week, Army officials hope to move out food convoys. They are to be accompanied by ICRC officials.

Attempts by the Army to let 2207 stranded persons to cross their defence lines and walk to their homes in the uncleared Wanni on July 28 proved futile. The LTTE turned down an Army request to allow them to return. Some 200 men, women and children who walked across the thin stretch of "no-man's land" from the Army defences near Pandiyankulam junction met with a hostile reception. Tiger guerrillas fired volleys after volleys of small arms fire over their heads and forced them to return to the Army held area.

Details of this human drama played in the conference hall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when an Army video of the aborted "border" crossing was shown to Colombo based diplomats. The five minute clip was also later shown at the news conference that followed. According to the footage, an Army Captain made contact with the LTTE using one of their own communication sets, seized by the Army during an operation sometime earlier. A sticker with a glazed print of LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran's face, was affixed to the communication set. He identified himself as "Col. Silva."

According to the footage, the penultimate moments of the human drama, when the stranded were forced to return to Vavuniya was both tense and moving. Clutching their assault rifles on their left hand, soldiers used their right to pat on the backs of the stranded who lay prostrate on the ground.

That was to persuade them to immediately walk back to their buses and lorries for the return journey to Vavuniya. Dusk was enveloping the area and they had to rush. All this while, the Army Captain kept talking to the LTTE. He was reasonably fluent in Tamil though he faltered now and then.

His final appeal was to plead on behalf of the stranded. He told LTTE "please do not do anything until we take the stranded people away. They have already suffered enough." At one point, he went on to say that the decision to send the stranded was made by the Government Agent and the Army was carrying out his request to provide the stranded help and safe passage. Therefore, he explained, this was not a ruse by the Army. His plea to stop firing and allow the civilians to board their vehicles to return met with approval.

The LTTE's decision to accept a 'gateway' through Mankulam with the existing defences constituting the Civilian Safety Zone was the result of a four page letter Maj. Gen. Balagalle sent them through the ICRC. He placed five different routes for their urgent consideration. They were:

1. A route through Vavuniya – Poovarasankulam- Moondimurippu-Thunukkai Road.

2. A route through Vavuniya – Mankulam Thunukkai road.

3. A route through Vavuniya – Mankulam Road along A-9 Jaffna-Kandy highway.

4. A route through Vavuniya – Odusuddan – Puthukudiruppu Road.

5. A route through Vavuniya – Odusuddan – Mullaitivu Road.

Maj. Gen. Balagalle said from any one of the five routes LTTE decides to choose, the Army proposed a Civilian Safety Zone which will be between the existing defences of the SLA and the LTTE in each of these routes.

Briefing the media last Monday, Maj. Gen. Balagalle, gave details of the sequence of events since the closure of the Uyilankulam route to uncleared areas on June 25. He said with this closure, "we have carefully reviewed contacts made in the past five weeks with the LTTE, through the good offices of the ICRC."

He added: With this closure, the Army proposed to the LTTE on June 29, three different areas from which such a route could be open. They were:

1. Through Vavuniya-Poovarasankulam-Moondimuruppu- Thunukkai Road.

2. Vavuniya-Mankulam Road along A-9 Kandy- Jaffna highway.

3. Vavuniya – Odusuddan – Puthukudiruppu road.

"The LTTE accepted our proposal to open a route through the Vavuniya-Mankulam Road. Thereafter, we proceeded to make arrangements. In order to ensure the safety of civilians, food convoys and to assist in their unimpeded movement, we proposed the setting up of a Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ), five kilometres long and one kilometre wide. This was to apply to both sides and not unilaterally to the LTTE.

"To allay publicly expressed apprehensions that we would use this route for military action, we assured the LTTE, through the ICRC, a security guarantee and our sincere commitment to meet all obligations on our part. We told the ICRC we expect a similar commitment from the LTTE.

However, the LTTE did not seek any clarification, amendment or modification to this proposal but rejected it outright.

"Conscious of the difficulties faced by the civilians in uncleared areas, which was also the concern of the ICRC, on July 21, we offered the LTTE an alternative. This time, the opening of a CSZ along the Mankulam-Thunukkai Road. Once again, the LTTE did not seek any clarification, amendment or modification.

"The outright rejection of the two proposals made by us was purportedly on the grounds that it would "tantamount to pulling back their established FDLs. Instead, the LTTE requested the re-opening of the Uyilankulam-Pallamadu road though it was well known that the closure of this route was due to ongoing military operations.

"These delaying tactics clearly expose the LTTE's unwillingness to negotiate a mutually agreeable route with a Civilian Safety Zone through the ICRC. This has exposed the LTTE ploy to use human suffering as a tool for misleading propaganda campaigns."

Maj. Gen. Balagalle said "we cannot allow this unfortunate situation to prolong whilst the suffering of the civilians continue." Hence the new set of proposals.

Despite the accord the SLA has reached with the LTTE, through the good offices of the ICRC, for a Civilian Safety Zone for the movement of food supplies, civilians etc, only the coming weeks will show how effective the arrangement will be. This is particularly in view of the belief in the defence establishment that the LTTE has resumed a new wave of "offensive action."

They believe this began with the suicide bomber assassination of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam in Colombo on July 29. Just six days after the incident, eleven Special Task Force (STF) commandos of the Police and a civilian were killed near Veppankulam on August 4. Although earlier reports spoke of a woman suicide bomber, subsequent investigations point to a claymore mine strapped to the handle of a push bicycle. It had been activated by a remote device when the truck carrying the STF commandos, who were returning from Vavuniya after home leave, passed the spot. The woman, earlier suspected to be a suicide bomber, is now said to be a passer by and believed to be in her 50s.

In the polemics between the Army and the LTTE regarding the selection of a CSZ, the fear expressed by the LTTE was that the Army would make use of the selected route as the axis of advance to break out from their present positions.

In such an expected scenario, it would be logical for the LTTE to accede to a route that they could best defend. The A-9 axis has been the selected Main Supply Route (MSR) by the Army.

For nearly two years, the Army has failed to establish this MSR. Even the advance up to Mankulam, during the now abandoned "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured), on the A-9 has been torturous and expensive in time, human casualties, materials and costs. Compared to that, the lateral spread into uncontrolled territory by the Army through its Rana Gosa series of operations has been far easier.

This would indicate that the LTTE lack both material resources and manpower to maintain defences to cover an extensive land area. They are compelled to focus on the most likely course the Army is likely to take along and which they have in the past two years entrenched their defence. In addition, any parallel routes, both east and west of the A-9 traverse through more difficult terrain conditions and could be countered by smaller defensive measures, especially in the monsoon conditions that will set in the next couple of months.

Moreover, it is unlikely there would be concentrated population centres along the A-9, the most likely ground of future contest. The population in the LTTE controlled areas is more likely to be dispersed in the Wanni heartland, which the LTTE could use as a civilian shield, to cry genocide should the Army move into these areas, out of the A-9 axis, in total battle.

On the other hand, the LTTE could use the CSZ , as a shield to accuse the Government of reneging on the Zone should the Army advance on the A-9 axis. Though this would not count for much if the Army were to make alternate arrangements for the supply of essential materials to the civilian population, but nevertheless the LTTE would like to score a politico-diplomatic point on this issue.

All aspects considered, it is not surprising that the LTTE have opted for the A-9 CSZ. The CSZ strategy, if it could be so termed, appears to fit in with the seeming LTTE plans for their next phase of operations. If they could stall, being steam rolled by the overwhelming superiority of material resources of the government forces, the LTTE could extend the war to the financial and political embarrassment of the government. A situation that will be politically vulnerable to whichever party is in governance considering that elections, both parliamentary and presidential, are due. A typical leaf from the protracted war strategy of Mao Tse Tung.

The acquisition of new arsenal of weapons by the LTTE, the revamping of their organisation, both politically and militarily and the application of coercive force by selective killing give perhaps a clue to LTTE plans in the short term.

This is most likely based on avoiding large-scale confrontational operations of a conventional nature and focusing on small- scale operations to harass the forces thinly spread out in a large area of territory. The emphasis on stand off weapons in the re-equipment of the LTTE inventory complements the view that the LTTE would formulate a strategy to conserve their manpower whilst inflicting maximum damage politically on the government. Stalemating the military, selective killing and political coercion is a part of that design.

Unpredictable though, the nature and course of conflicts of internal wars, judging from the low profile, stalemated level of operations during this year, it appears increasingly likely that the country will enter a new millennium continuing to be the military and political doldrums of an indeterminable human conflict. Indeterminable because of the lack of national mindedness and political will on both sides of the divide.

The Fifth Column

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