Situation Report

3rd September 2000

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Guns boom in the North as nation readies for polls

Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) spewed out hundreds of shells, second after second. Artillery and mortar shells rained in rapid succession. They were accompanied by Rocket Propelled Grenades. Low flying interceptor jets fired on suspected targets.image

That was how troops from the Army's 51 and 53 Divisions broke the four month long lull in the battlefields of the north just before crack of dawn on Wednesday. For the past four days they were pounding Tiger guerrilla positions in the Thenmaratchi sector of the Jaffna peninsula. Whether it was harassing fire to soften targets, a prelude to the launch of an operation, or a fully fledged offensive, is not clear.

But there is no doubt last Wednesday's action signalled the resumption of the Government's major crackdown on the Tiger guerrillas – the first significant thrust in the new millennium. It was only last week President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga declared at the SLFP Uva Province convention that "we pledge to destroy terrorism and implement our political solution to end the war and achieve lasting peace."

It comes in the aftermath of a string of humiliating military reversals that began in November, last year, when Tiger guerrillas ousted troops from their encampments and seized control of Oddusuddan, Nedunkerny, Olumadu, Ampakamam, Mankulam and Kanakarayankulam.

This was followed in April, this year, by more than 10,000 troops being forced to withdraw from the Elephant Pass Defence Complex ceding the entire area to the LTTE. In addition, the Tiger guerrillas also seized control of vast chunks of territory south west of the Jaffna peninsula.

However, these events were to see the strengthening and modernisation of the security forces. Billions of rupees worth of new material and equipment have been procured for the Army, Navy and the Air Force. The crack down begins with these acquisitions.

It will focus on evicting the LTTE from areas they have seized. However, for obvious reasons, one cannot spell out the exact form in which it will take shape, but its importance is underscored by the top priority attention given by those in the upper echelons of the security establishment. High ranking military officials have already taken up position at the Security Forces Headquarters in Jaffna.This included chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte.

Significantly, the latest thrust against Tiger guerrillas comes at a time when the nation's attention is focused on the upcoming Parliamentary elections on October 10. Nominations for this purpose get under way tomorrow. Whilst the politicians fight their polls campaign, the security forces will be fighting it out in the battlefields of the north. Needless to say the latter's successes will be grist to the mill in the Government's propaganda effort.

However, any possible adverse development is not bound to reach the voter, though the ongoing 17 year long separatist war is one of the most crucial issues facing every Sri Lankan. It is a known fact that all Sri Lankans contribute to the war effort through various forms of taxation including the National Security Levy. What will deny them a proper picture, with the exception of high pitched propaganda, is the decision to continue the ongoing censorship on grounds of "national security." The move will mean that any news of the war, as is now the practice, will be dished out only in news releases put out by the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence.

Compounding the situation further is the continuing ban on media visits to the operational areas, particularly the Jaffna peninsula, except on conducted tours. Requests by the local media including The Sunday Times to the Ministry of Defence for their representatives to visit Jaffna, particularly in view of the upcoming parliamentary elections, has met with no response.

Leave alone reporting on the war, this has denied to the media an opportunity to inform public in the south about how democracy worked in areas held by the Government and how the public there, despite threats from the LTTE, were preparing for the polls. This unique privilege has been allowed only to two moderate Tamil parties who are currently engaged in their "polls campaigns" in the north. Their propaganda organs have been free to report on developments in the peninsula and matters relating to military activity there.

In the new millennium, barring representatives of State run media, no other media personnel have been allowed into the peninsula. The only exception has been a group of foreign journalists, recommended by Sri Lankan diplomatic missions abroad, who were given a conducted tour of Jaffna and a briefing on the "normalcy" that is prevailing there despite threats of terrorism. They have told their stories to the world. Some have been in glowing terms and were repeated locally. Others, not so good, however, did not come to the attention of Sri Lankans.

Whilst this is the situation, some Government propagandists have accused the independent media personnel of not visiting or reporting from the operational areas. They allege that invitations have been spurned but are cunningly cautious not to mention that such invitations are only for conducted tours with a set agenda.

Indications of a Government crack down on Tiger guerrillas on parliamentary election eve came after Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, flew to Jaffna to preside at a string of top level security conferences, as reported in these columns last week (Situation Report – August 27). I observed… "a military victory before the election will certainly be a plus factor for the Government. Contrary to earlier thinking, this seems to be a strong likelihood now."

If the security forces gunfire has disturbed the lull in the battlefield, the LTTE has not remained quiet. Seizing the lull, they had continued to retrain their cadres and re-equipped themselves. Their preparations have not been confined to the north alone, but to the Wanni and the Eastern Province as well.

In what seemed a response to the security forces thrust in the north, the LTTE triggered off an incident in the Mannar district on Friday, that left 15 airmen dead and seven wounded. Four of them were reported to be in a critical condition yesterday.

The incident occurred at Kidacholai, barely a kilometre south of the security forces defence lines near Mannar. A tractor that drove along a gravel road collecting Air Force personnel going on leave. Contrary to earlier claims of a claymore mine, military officials say Tiger guerrillas exploded a powerful landmine. They suspect infiltration into the defended area to lay the mine became possible in view of civilian settlements in the area. Two months ago, an Army truck carrying soldiers was hit by a guerrilla Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in the same general area.

What may have been another major incident was averted on time when a route clearing patrol detected a 16 kilogramme claymore mine on the Trincomalee main highway, near the Naval headworks on Friday. It has been intended for a bus carrying security forces personnel.

Besides trying to attack security forces targets, intelligence sources say, they have uncovered evidence to show the LTTE was planning to disrupt the Parliamentary elections. A recent Police Special Task Force radio intercept in the east spoke of Karuna, the Batticaloa leader (now operating in the north) directing the LTTE intelligence leader in the district to prepare to step up attacks. Similar instructions, intelligence sources say, have also gone out to LTTE cadres in the Wanni and other areas.

The coming weeks undoubtedly will be a nightmare for the security and Police authorities. Whilst meeting the challenges posed by Tiger guerrillas, they will also have to equally ensure a trouble free parliamentary election. Certainly not an easy task with violent incidents showing an increasing trend.

Joint US- Sri Lanka military exercise ends

Colombo Airways, Good Evening. This is Goose Two One…..

The voice crackled over the radio at the Air Traffic Control Centre of the Bandaranaike International Airport early last month. Controllers guided the Hercules C-130 aircraft to a parking apron. After a short arrival ceremony, local military officials tasked for liaison work whisked off their visitors and military equipment to the south.

That was how men from the United States Army's ODA 185 and ODA 115, First Special Forces Group and the Naval Special Warfare (Unit One) of the United States Navy arrived in Colombo for the conduct of Operation Balance Style 2. This is under the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) programme.

The US team last month ended the final phase of this Balanced Style programme in a joint exercise that included personnel from the Sri Lanka Army's 53 Division, Commando Regiment and those from the Navy's Special Boat Squadron. The joint training exercises were conducted in two locations in the south, including one off a coastal area.

The combined United States – Sri Lanka exercise included Advanced Trauma Management, Dismounted Patrolling, Advanced Marksmanship, Barrier Penetration, Tactical Communications, Caches, Indirect Fire and Water crossings among others.

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