Situation Report

20th May 2001

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Foiled assassination bid and stalemate in peace talks 

A Mitsubishi Pajero, painted in Tiger stripe camouflage, sped on the dusty, rugged A-9 (Jaffna-Kandy) highway last Tuesday afternoon. 

It was at Kokavil, a village near the Iranamadu tank, which once housed a Rupavahini transmission tower, heading south westwards to Mallavi. A loud explosion shook the ground. It ripped apart the Pajero. A double cab and trailer motor cycles that were in the convoy gained speed to save the "VIP" who was being escorted. 

It was S.P. Thamil Chelvam, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Political Wing, travelling with a retinue of escorts last Tuesday. He was arriving in Mallavi a day earlier for a scheduled meeting with Norwegian Special Envoy, Erik Solheim. 

Mr. Chelvam escaped only because he was not in the Mitsubishi Pajero, the usual mode of transport for members of the Tiger guerrilla hierarchy. Escorts and other members of the entourage usually rode on trailer motor bikes or double cabs. Whoever targeted the Pajero believed Mr. Chelvam, like other top guerrilla leaders, was there. 

Perhaps realising that moving around in a Pajero had become too much routine, Mr. Chelvam had chosen to move in a double cab. He was travelling from Puthukkudiyiruppu, near Mullaitivu, now the heartland of LTTE activity. 

Even Mr. leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had used the route south of Kokkavil to arrive at Mallavi and return. That was when he went there for a meeting on November 1 last year, with Mr. Solheim, his very first visit to the Wanni. However, where Mr. Prabhakaran exactly came from and returned to is not known. 

The Tamilnet website, now widely accessed by those in the security establishment for the "other view" on the ongoing peace initiatives and related matters, had this to say on the incident: 

"A convoy of the Liberation Tigers in which Mr. S.P. Thamil Chelvam, the leader of the political wing of the LTTE, was travelling towards Mallavi where he was scheduled to meet Norwegian Peace envoy Mr. Eric Solheim was hit near Kokkavil by a claymore blast set off by a deep penetration team of the Sri Lanka army Tuesday afternoon, sources in Wanni said. A LTTE trooper was killed and two were wounded in the blast. They were travelling in a Mitsubishi Pajero that was providing security to Mr. Thamil Chelvam's vehicle, the sources added. 

"Meanwhile Mr. Solheim and Mr. Jon Westborg, Norway's Ambassador to Sri Lanka who were scheduled to start talks with Mr. Thamil Chelvam and other LTTE officials in Mallavi Wednesday, will travel to Wanni Thursday, official LTTE sources said. 

"The Liberation Tigers have begun a search operation to locate the SLA's deep penetration team in the Kokkavil area, the sources in Wanni said. 

"Kokkavil is 7 kilometres north of Mankulam on the A9 highway from Vavuniya to Jaffna. 

"Mr. Thamil Chelvam's convoy escaped an attack by a SLA deep penetration team earlier during a visit by religious leaders to the Wanni earlier this year." 

Military Spokesman, Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne, dismissed the LTTE accusation as "utter rubbish." He said, "our men were not operating anywhere near Kokkavil at that time. We would not have done that when peace initiatives were under way." 

Who then was responsible for the attack? Theories were abound. Some alleged that Tamil groups opposed to Tiger guerrillas were reportedly hired to carry out the task. Could they have operated in areas regarded as the LTTE heartland where high security is maintained? Others theorised it was a LTTE staged incident. That seemed highly unlikely since the guerrillas would not sacrifice the lives of their own ranks to stage manage an incident. 

Even President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who chaired a meeting of the National Security Council on Wednesday afternoon, was surprised at the incident. Her own sentiments on the matter were reflected in a Defence Ministry statement that appeared in the Daily News on Thursday. 

It said: "The military knows nothing about it and has not been anywhere near this area even during the operation to capture the main highway." 

"The Ministry of Defence regrets that anybody should have done or attempted a thing like this when the Norwegian envoy was due to go there." 

According to the LTTE account in the Tamilnet, only one guerrilla was killed. He is learnt to be Vellai Annan, a senior cadre who has been functioning as a co-ordinator in the Political Wing. He is said to be closely associated both with LTTE leader, Prabhakaran and Thamil Chelvam. Other reports from the Wanni said all seven occupants in the Pajero were killed following the explosion. According to these reports, the vehicle was a total wreck soon after the claymore mine exploded. 

On Wednesday, Mr. Solheim and his entourage were to board a Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter from Colombo, for his flight to Vavuniya at 7 a.m. Awaiting his arrival at the military base in Vavuniya was an Army officer tasked to escort the Special Envoy and party up to the Army barrier at Piramanalankulam. In view of the confusion during previous visits where those manning the barrier told Mr. Solheim they had no orders to allow him to travel, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, had assigned the officer. 

But hours before his departure Mr. Solheim had been told of the abortive assassination attempt on Mr. Chelvam. He delayed his departure. Later that day, he flew with Ambassador Westborg and another to Anuradhapura and spent the night at Miridiya Hotel. On Thursday morning, the peace negotiators were airlifted to Vavuniya in an SLAF Mi- 17 and later drove by road to Piramanlankulam. 

His return journey after the Wanni visit could have turned out to be fatal had it not been for the alertness of an Army picketing team who were clearing the roads. They wanted to make it secure for Mr. Solheim and party. In Pampaimadu, nearly seven kilometres west of Vavuniya (on the Mannar Road), a land mine exploded. One of the two soldiers who were wounded succumbed to his injuries. The Special Media Information Centre said the crater caused by the blast was four metres in depth and six feet in diameter. It is this route Mr. Solheim took when he returned on Friday afternoon from his visit to guerrilla dominated Wanni. 

A string of incidents followed thereafter. A claymore mine exploded on a bus load of soldiers going on leave. The incident on the road between Cheddikulam and Parayanankulam left seven soldiers dead and 14 wounded. In another incident at Aasikulam, also in the Vavuniya district, two policemen and a soldier were killed. Later on Friday afternoon, guerrillas fired at a Police Special Task Force (STF) patrol injuring two, one of them seriously. 

Even if their official statements made no reference to the failed assassination attempt on Thamil Chelvam, the LTTE is clearly piqued by the incident. Both senior military officials and intelligence sources were agreed the string of incidents on Friday were retaliatory. They warn the move portended increased violence by the guerrillas in the coming days and weeks. 

It is in this backdrop that Mr. Solheim and his entourage returned to Colombo after five hours of talks with Mr. Chelvam on Thursday. The news he brought was far from encouraging. The guerrillas were insisting that the Government de proscribe them. 

Even before Mr. Solheim and his party had retired for the night on Thursday to an LTTE "guest house" in Mallavi, the guerrillas spread the news of what transpired during the talks both locally and world-wide. On Thursday night itself, "Uthayan", the most widely read Tamil newspaper in the Jaffna peninsula was briefed. The lead story on the front page of Friday's issue declared the guerrillas wanted the ban on them lifted before formal talks could begin with the Government. 

On Friday, the Tamilnet website quoting the clandestine Voice of Tigers said "The removal of the proscription of the Liberation Tigers is an essential pre-requisite for talks," Mr. S.P. Thamil Chelvam, the leader of the political wing of the LTTE told Norwegian Peace envoy Eric Solheim during discussions Thursday in Mallavi in the Wanni, ….. 

It added " The radio said that the Tigers had categorically told the Norwegian team that the LTTE would never take part in the talks as a "proscribed terrorist organisation….." 

But a more categorical statement from the LTTE came on Friday afternoon in their own letter-head. Faxed to media organisations the LTTE said it has "called for a stable cessation of hostilities and the lifting of the ban on the organisation as necessary steps for the commencement of the peace negotiations with the Sri Lanka Government." 

The highlights of the statement spells out the LTTE's current position vis-à-vis the peace talks. It also underscores the uncertainty that lies over future Norwegian backed efforts to bring the Government and Tiger guerrillas to the negotiating table. This is what it said: 

"Explaining the position of the LTTE with regard to peace talks Mr. Tamil Chelvam posited three factors as pre-requisites necessary steps to create a stable foundation for political negotiations. Removing the economic blockade in the Tamil homeland, declaring an indefinite ceasefire and the lifting of the ban on the LTTE are the essential elements, he told the Norwegian facilitators. The proscription of the Liberation Tigers in Sri Lanka has become the major hurdle for the initiation of peace talks and the LTTE would never take part in the talks as a banned, illegal, terrorist organisation, Mr. Tamil Chelvam declared. 

"It is wrong to assume the LTTE is deliberately procrastinating the peace talks. We always requested the Sri Lanka State to create a congenial climate conducive for talks. ……. 

"Furthermore, we wish to enter political negotiations with Sri Lanka as the authentic, legitimate representatives of our people for which the proscription of our organisation should be lifted. These are not demands or pre conditions for talks but rather pre-requisites necessary steps to crease the very foundation for political negotiations……. 

"We have fought a liberation war for more than two decades and have a standard conventional army and a mass of territory under our administrative control. The historical conditions of our struggle are unique and cannot be compared to IRA, PLO and other rebel groups in northern India. It is the collective aspiration of our people that the ban on our liberation organisation should be lifted. If Sri Lanka wants peace and permanent resolution of the ethnic conflict, it should not hesitate to remove the ban as the Tamil people's demand, Mr. Tamil Chelvam explained to the Norwegian delegates. 

" The Norwegian proposal of the Memorandum of Understanding was also discussed. The LTTE delegates suggested certain alterations in the document. The Tamil Tigers also emphasised the importance of ceasefire for the implementation of the MOU and for the commencement of talks. No agreement was reached at this discussion. Both parties agreed to continue the deliberations at a later date…" 

The LTTE's insistence of a de-proscription has virtually deadlocked Norwegian initiatives for peace talks. If the guerrillas are insisting on a lifting of the ban on them, it has become equally difficult for the Government to lift it. Since imposing the ban on January 27, 1998, following the LTTE bomb attacks on Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Government has been spearheading an international campaign to have the guerrilla group banned by other foreign governments. 

In that situation, lifting such a ban becomes an impossible task to the Government. President Kumaratunga is learnt to have explained this position to Mr. Solheim when the latter met on Wednesday to brief her on the Wanni visit. 

Also present at the talks was Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar. Mr. Solheim cleared with them a short statement he proposed to issue on his talks in Wanni.

Mr. Solheim is learnt to have narrowed down differences that existed on other key issues. That included the Norwegian backed Memorandum of Understanding on Humanitarian Relief and a halt to fighting to facilitate the peace process. Whilst there was near consensus on the former, in the case of a halt to fighting, there has been a marked shift on the Government's position. 

Earlier, the Government felt that a ceasefire should be formulated only after both sides sit down for negotiations. 

This is on the basis that a time frame for talks and core issues to be discussed would become clear by that time. 

However, in the backdrop of the failed "Operation Agni Khiela" (Rod of Fire), the Government was amenable to halt hostilities within an agreed time frame. But, the LTTE had insisted on an open ended cessation of hostilities. 

Until the Norwegian facilitators overcome the stalemate over the LTTE demand for de proscription, it is now certain that there will be no easing of the military situation. More so, with the LTTE triggering off a string of retaliatory attacks last Friday, in an apparent response to the abortive assassination attempt on Mr. Chelvam. Government denials do not seem to have convinced them. Hence, the anger over the incident is bound to reverberate in LTTE quarters. 

As repeatedly revealed in these columns, the LTTE has continued with an arms build up in the past few months. These new acquisitions will not only enhance their capability but also result in battles with greater intensity. That is apart from the threats the LTTE poses in areas outside the operational theatre, particularly the City. 

Also revealed in these columns last week was the difficulties experienced by the Navy in countering the Tiger guerrillas regularly smuggling in military hardware through the north eastern seas. One of the main reasons is the non operability of vessels which the Government obtained at great expense to patrol the deep seas. 

These acquisitions included the Indian Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV), SLNS "Sayura" and two over 20 year old Israeli built Fast Missile Vessels (FMV). After references were made in this column last week, a senior Navy officer ordered the OPV, which is plying the southern waters, to immediately move to the eastern seas. Hours after the signal was sent out, "SLNS Sayura," has entered a southern port with engine trouble. The two FMVs are also non operational. 

Hopes of peace in the past many months have receded with the latest deadlock. 

The Norwegian facilitators have vowed they would continue their dialogue after reflecting on their dialogue so far.

Until that becomes successful, an already modernised Security Force will now have to be ready to meet the threats from an enemy that has been continuing to modernise in the past weeks and months. 

For Sri Lanka, the cycle of peace and war, seems to be following each other. Much the same way, night follows day. 

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