Situation Report

24th December 2000

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Chaos over LTTE cease-fire offer

imageFor the second time in just two months, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have caught the Government by surprise.

On Thursday evening, the Colombo based media, both local and foreign, received a press release from their so called International Secretariat in London. This is what it said:

"The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in an official statement issued today from its headquarters in the Wanni, northern Sri Lanka, announced the declaration of a month long unilateral cease-fire as a gesture of goodwill during the festive season to facilitate and promote initiatives towards a peace process.

"Mr. Velupillai Prabha-karan, leader and military commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, has issued orders to all units and combat formations of the Tamil Liberation army to cease hostile military actions against the Sri Lanka armed forces from midnight 24th December, 2000 to midnight 24th January, 2001, the LTTE statement declared.

"We make this declaration of cessation of armed hostilities unilaterally hoping that the Sri Lanka government will reciprocate positively and instruct its armed forces to observe peace during the festive season of Christmas, New Year and Pongal (Hindu Harvest Festival). Our decision to cease armed hostilities should be viewed as a genuine expression of goodwill indicating our sincere desire for peace and negotiated political settlement. We offer this space of peace to facilitate and promote initiatives to create congenial conditions of normalcy de-escalating the armed confrontation," the statement said.

"If Sri Lanka responds positively by ceasing armed hostilities against our forces and takes steps to implement the Norwegian proposal of mutual confidence building measures, the LTTE will be prepared to extend the period of peace to create cordial conditions for a stable cease-fire and direct negotiations," the statement further stated.

As the LTTE statement reached the fax machines of the Colombo based media that Thursday evening, at the Security Forces Headquarters in Jaffna, hectic preparations were under way for the latest military offensive. That was to come before the crack of dawn on Friday.

When news of the unconditional cease-fire offer spread, for a second time, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, received queries from some field commanders. Would that mean a halt to the offensive that was to be launched within hours ? There was no such orders from the Government. Lt. Gen. Balagalle not only made it clear there was no change in the "go ahead" given for the operation. "All systems go," he added.

Troops of the Army's 51 Division led by Major General Gamini Jayasundera and those of the 53 Division led by Major General Sivali Waniga-sekera, launched "Operation Kiniheera VII." It should have been stage VI of the same operation but military planners chose to ignore that phase and got on to the next one. Men from the 51 Division moved on two flanks whilst those of 53 came from another direction.

Nine hours later, when the operation ended and the consolidation phase began, an officer and 25 soldiers were killed. A further 47 were wounded, six of them critically. The Army said 51 Tiger guerrillas were killed but there was no word from the LTTE about its casualties. Most of the troop casualties were caused by mortar and sniper fire.

Military Spokesman Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne, a veteran infantry officer, summed up the outcome. He said troops re-captured 34 square kilometres of territory after knocking out several Tiger guerrilla strong points. The area encompassed the now destroyed Kaithady and Navatkuli bridges and three and half kilometres of the A-9 (Jaffna-Kandy) highway. The A-9 from Chavakachcheri was now clear barring an extent of some two kilometers east of Jaffna.

In other words, troops have now consolidated their hold on the northern capital, Jaffna. This was undoubtedly the most significant achievement since offensive operations, particularly after the military was re-equipped, began in September this year. It meant security forces installations there were secure from mortar attacks and even infiltration. In a surprise move, troops yesterday resumed their advance to re-capture the remaining stretch and thus ensure the A-9 from Jaffna to Chavakachcheri were in the hands of the security forces.

Seven Tiger guerillas were captured alive yesterday and one of them was admitted to hospital. Bodies of thirty others who died in confrontations the previous day were also handed over yesterday to the ICRC. A striking feature of the string of offensive operations since September, this year, was the limited resistance offered by Tiger guerrillas barring one occasion the launch of "Operation Rivikirana." The latter led to the deaths of over 250 soldiers and more than 1000 being wounded. All other offensives that followed led to troops re-capturing territory with only limited resistance.

Intelligence assessments explained the reasons. Tiger cadres had been re-called for training and their leadership was busy working out new strategies to cope with the enhanced fire power of the military. If new equipment, including Multiple Rocket Launchers had helped the Army, the induction of Mig-27 jets supplemented by additional Kfir ground attack aircraft had enhanced the target acquisition capabilities of the Air Force.

Basking in their successes in the Wanni in November last year, followed by those at Elephant Pass and the Jaffna peninsula, beginning April this year, the LTTE had launched a fresh recruitment drive. Those cadres were still being trained. Intelligence reports spoke of them being ready for deployment by February next year.

LTTE sources in London, whom I spoke to last week, confirmed they were gearing themselves to meet the new challenges posed by the security forces. They acknowledged the measures required time but were confident that within several weeks they would be ready to enhance their offensive capability. The mood was upbeat. Colour pictures of their success stories in the Wanni, Elephant Pass and the Jaffna peninsula were being widely circulated. Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran himself stood below the barrel of a 152 mm Chinese built artillery gun, one that was seized from the Sri Lanka Army. (See pictures on this page)

It is in this backdrop that the offer of a month long, unconditional ceasefire came from the LTTE last Thursday. Needless to say the news caused confusion in the security establishment. And this is not the first time such confusion has occurred.

It was on November 1, that Norwegian Special Envoy, Eric Solheim, arrived in Sri Lanka on a top secret visit to the Wanni jungles for a meeting with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Hardly had he left the Wanni, the LTTE's so called International Secretariat in London issued a statement which exposed the fact that Mr. Solheim had gone to the Wanni and met the Tiger guerrilla leader.

The statement made it clear that Mr. Prabhakaran wanted a cessation of armed hostilities, "the removal of military aggression and occupation, the withdrawal of the economic embargo and the creation of conditions of normalcy in the Tamil homeland." These were described by him as essential pre-requisites to resume political negotiations.

Arriving in Colombo, Mr. Solheim addressed a news conference. He was emphatic about what Mr. Prabhakaran had placed "but explained how the LTTE felt the peace process could be started. He declared that the LTTE was serious about peace talks but made it clear there were no quick fixes.

This is what the Situation Report of November 12 said: "The conflicting reports were to cause confusion in the security establishment. Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, highly placed Army sources said, was at the receiving end of a string of telephone calls from his field commanders in the operational areas seeking clarification on the future of military operations. Among the callers, these sources said, was Major General Anton Wijendra, Commander, Security Forces, Jaffna, under whose command area five different military operations have been conducted against Tiger guerrillas since September this year.

"Lt. Gen. Balagalle had assured his field commanders there was no Government directive to slow down or halt the military campaign against Tiger guerrillas. He told them that the matter should be clearly explained to the officers and men on the ground. Despite all the efforts, some confusion did remain, particularly in the minds of the soldiers. Reports in some sections of the media had been the cause".

imageFor a second time, last Friday Lt. Gen. Balagalle had to re-assure his men that there was no directive to halt the war so far although an unconditional ceasefire offer has been made. Yet the Army, albeit the Government came in for some criticism in the international media for continuing with an offensive despite an offer by the LTTE for an unconditional ceasefire starting on Christmas Eve.

Like on numerous previous occasions during the 18 year long separatist war, the lack of a cohesive Government mechanism to respond to important developments, that affect national security and national interests, was highlighted again after last Thursday's LTTE offer. It was not only the security establishment that was exposed to confusion. It was much worse in the case of the political establishment.

Different Cabinet ministers reacted in different ways to the LTTE offer, again a very clear illustration of the absence of any Governmental apparatus at the highest levels to deal or react on matters of utmost importance to the nation. One minister declared, perhaps quite rightly, that the LTTE offer of an unconditional ceasefire had not been made to the Government but in a statement issued from London. Another said the offer would not be accepted. Another said the Foreign Ministry would respond with a statement. A fourth said it would be considered if it came through the Norwegian facilitators. Yet another said the LTTE offer was nothing but a plot.

Confusion reigned for well over 24 hours. That was until Media Minister, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, issued a statement in which he declared that the "declaration of a ceasefire by the LTTE could be a productive exercise.' But he declared that in view of previous "unhappy experiences" it was necessary to act with "great caution, proper inquiry and understanding." However, he announced that the Government will soon issue a more "detailed and comprehensive" statement.

There was a clear indication in Mr. Yapa's statement that the Government would eventually accept the ceasefire offer. But that was not to be. It has now transpired that the Media Minister's statement had been issued despite a Presidential directive from London to ministers not to make any formal remarks on the LTTE ceasefire offer until she took a decision on how to react.

Yesterday, from London, President Kumaratunga decided to reject the LTTE's offer of an unconditional ceasefire from midnight today. She approved a draft statement sent to her. Last night it was released by the Presidential Secretariat as a news release from Prime minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar.

In a separate development, also in London, UK's Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Peter Hain, who visited Sri Lanka recently, has hailed the LTTE's offer of an unconditional ceasefire as a welcome move. He said so in a statement.

As is evident from its contents, Mr. Yapa's media statement on Friday night was hurriedly prepared. This is underscored by the wording. This is what it said:

"The LTTE has announced that effective from midnight of December 24, 2000, it will observe a unilateral cease-fire for a period of one month. This is described by the LTTE as a step towards creating an atmosphere of cordiality necessary to take the peace process forward. It also states that it has announced this cease-fire in view of the approaching Christmas festival, the New Year and the Hindu Thai Pongal festival.

"The Government is not opposed to any genuine steps that are taken with the aim of finding a solution to the country's ethnic conflict. The Government of President Chandrika Kumara-tunga has at all times acted giving the highest priority to this need. Looked at from this perspective, it would appear that the declaration of a cease-fire by the LTTE could be a productive exercise.

"The Government is also well aware of the compelling reasons that influenced the LTTE to declare a cease-fire at this particular time. In view of the previous unhappy experiences in having dealings with the LTTE, the government has at no stage abandoned the view that in any dealings with the LTTE, it is necessary to act with great caution and proper inquiry and understanding. The Government which has a deep commitment to ensuring the security of the nation, will at no stage give up its right to act with constant and continued inquiry and caution about any steps it takes with regard to the security of the nation and the country.

"Having such an attitude of caution and inquiry with regard to the cease-fire announced by the LTTE, is not in any way an obstruction to taking a positive view of this decision.

"The Government will soon issue a more detailed and comprehensive statement position on this matter."

By issuing the statement on Friday night, the Government has not only hinted strongly that it would accept the ceasefire offer but has also acknowledged it would take note and react to offers not formally made to it. This is by responding to a statement issued by the LTTE from London. And now from London, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, has rejected the offer and a statement gave the reasons. The fact that her own Media Minister earlier issued a statement indicating the Government's possible acceptance itself reveals the state of confusion that prevails.

It was only five months ago that the Government placed the country on what it called a "war footing" and allocated millions of dollars or billions of rupees to further modernise the security forces. Over fifty per cent of the equipment ordered had already arrived and the balance is being awaited. That is for the Army, Navy and the Air Force.

In addition, the Army launched a recruitment drive to enlist 15,000 more troops. The response, however, was poor. Only over 3,500 joined the ranks and they are now being trained. Military planners worked on strategies to evict the LTTE from areas they have captured in the Wanni and the North since November last year.

In a bid to sustain the war effort, the public had been called upon to bear heavier burdens in the form of price increases, levies and taxes. They were then told the only way out was to defeat the Tiger guerrillas militarily.

Five months after these assertions, the country is plunged into confusion, which the LTTE has effectively succeeded in causing, be it in the battlefield or outside it. When they waged war, the Government responded with war pumping billions of rupees to further modernise the security forces. Now that the LTTE has offered a truce, it almost veered towards accepting a ceasefire.

Both the war and peace efforts seem to be lacking a sense of direction. With hardly any cohesive response at the highest levels to matters of urgent interest to the nation, the only thing that has continued to persist is national confusion and the resultant chaos.

New Navy chief takes over

Rear Admiral Daya SandagiriRear Admiral Daya Sandagiri, now Chief of Staff, will take over as the new Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, next week.

This is after the present incumbent, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, retires at the end of a four year term. He is learnt to have already informed the Ministry of Defence of his intention to do so and formally recommended his successor.

Rear Admiral Sandagiri was to have retired on March 8 upon reaching the maximum period of service in his rank but was given an extension until further notice. On an appeal made to the Ministry of Defence, his term was extended "until further notice." Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera

He was to later benefit from Emergency Regulations on June 13, this year, which enabled President Kumaratunga to retain in the same rank an officer presently holding the rank of a Brigadier or Major General, or the equivalents in the Navy and the Air Force Commodore or Rear Admiral and Air Commodore or Air Vice Marshal. These regulations which were to expire on December 12 were extended until December 31.

Another beneficiary of the extension of the Emergency Regulations was Rear Admiral Terrance Sunderam, currently Commander of the Navy's Eastern Naval Area. Like Rear Admiral Sandagiri, his term too was extended "until further notice" and is due to retire on December 31. If his term of office is extended, he is likely to become the Chief of Staff of the Navy. Otherwise, the post will go to Rear Admiral A.H.M. Razeek, currently Commander, Western Naval Area.

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