3rd June 2001
Two Sri Lanka Air Force helicopters touched down at the Police Park grounds along Havelock Road on Thursday, May 24. Even if many were unaware, military top brass were set to embark on an important mission that day.
Commanders of the three services and their aides were on hand. Within minutes they were to board a flight to Trincomalee. The only delay was the arrival of Deputy Defence Minister, Gen. Anuruddha Ratwatte. Soon, news arrived that he would not leave due to a family bereavement. The trip was called off.
The top men in the defence establishment were to oversee the launch of a major security exercise in the north eastern waters off Sri Lanka. The cancellation of the trip did not mean it was called off.
The very next day, on May 25, a significant step in Sri Lanka's national security came into effect. "Operation Varuna Kirana," (Colourful Rays), the placing of a permanent Naval cordon in the north eastern seas off Sri Lanka to prevent Tiger guerrillas from smuggling in military supplies was launched.
Shiploads of material were brought in vessels to the deep seas off Sri Lanka by the LTTE and transferred to smaller vessels.
They were unloaded at selected spots on the north east coast.
The latest operation comes under the control of the Sri Lanka Navy's Eastern Command Headquarters in Trincomalee.
The Navy has used a large part of its assets to place this cordon some six miles off the north eastern coast. It covers the waters off the coast of Mullaitivu, in a southerly direction up to Kokilai.
Naval craft deployed in this cordon will liaise closely with craft deployed in the Navy's two year old "Operation Seal," where large boats patrol waters some 60 miles off the coast. On Friday, the Navy's Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessel (AOPV) "SLNS Sayura," acquired from India and one of the Israeli built Fast Missile Vessels (FMV), "SLNS Nandimithra," left Colombo, to patrol the north eastern deep sea waters.
Assisting the Sri Lanka Navy in the conduct of "Operation Varuna Kirana" is the Sri Lanka Air Force. The SLAF has shifted its Air Surveillance Command Centre from Anuradhapura to Trincomalee.
It will not only conduct reconnaisance flights but also operate UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to detect any Sea Tiger boat movements.
The reconnaisance flights will extend from 100 to 150 miles off the coast, waters which are well within Sri Lanka's Exclusive Economic Zone.
Navy officials said that the launch of "Operation Varuna Kirana" had obviated the need for cargo vessels heading from Trincomalee to the Jaffna peninsula and vice versa to be fully escorted by Naval craft.
Navy vessels assigned to the operation, they said, were now in a position to rush for help within minutes. Moreover, the movement of these vessels were being monitored by air.
This column has repeatedly revealed how the LTTE was busy smuggling in military supplies through the north eastern waters. This was whilst renewing a unilateral ceasefire imposed on Christmas eve last year, and extended successively for four months. Last month's (Situation Report – May 13), revealed how the Navy received a tip off from a friendly neighbouring country that a large ship was unloading suspected military supplies to smaller vessels that were later heading towards the north eastern coast.
The Navy's Eastern Command Headquarters in Trincomalee reacted promptly.
Two Chinese built Fast Gun Boats were tasked to proceed immediately to the area to identify the exact location and report details.
The suspect ship was tracked to 150 miles north east of Sri Lanka. The movement of the FGBs were impeded by choppy seas. At one point, radio contact with one of the FGBs was lost. Later, the boats lost track of the ship and air interdiction was not possible.
More proof of LTTE smuggling in military supplies came when intelligence officials interrogated eight Tiger guerrillas who were rescued from the high seas during a confrontation on April 22 (Situation Report – April 22).
It has now come to light that in the four months when the LTTE ceasefire was in place, there had been two shipments of supplies every month. Ships with two cranes on board had unloaded them into barge-like Sea Tiger vessels.
They had later been escorted to the shores near Mullaitivu by Sea Tiger boats. It was one such unloading operation that was detected by the Navy in March, resulting in a deep sea confrontation that led to the arrest of the eight guerrillas.
These developments prompted President Kumaratunga to order the Navy to formulate immediate counter measures. Thereafter the Navy made a presentation before her at the National Security Council. Later, Deputy Minister Gen. Ratwatte chaired a top level meeting at the Joint Operations Headquarters where details of "Operation Varuna Kirana" were fine tuned. Taking part in this meeting were Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte and the service commanders. It was this mission Gen. Ratwatte and the top brass were to oversee during a visit to Trincomalee on May 24.
In his absence, the three service commanders- Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle (Army), Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri (Navy) and Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody (Air Force) flew to Trincomalee on may 30 to review how "Operation Varuna Kirana" worked.
"We did identify some teething problems. We have rectified them and the operation is going on smoothly," a high ranking Navy source who wished to remain anonymous said yesterday.
He said the operation will come up for review "after four or five weeks" and added that there has been "no contact" with the enemy since the operation was launched.
Gen. Ratwatte has made it clear that "Operation Varuna Kirana" was in no way an offensive operation and hence was not in conflict in any way with the ongoing peace initiatives by the Norwegians. He has explained that the main aim of the exercise was a preventive one directed at stalling any moves to smuggle military supplies. Needless to say that a sovereign Government has the right to protect its territorial waters and thus ensure that the high intensity conflict on going under way does not exacerbate further.
These developments come in the backdrop of last week's Government announcement rejecting the LTTE demand for a lifting of the ban on them as a "pre requisite" for taking part in the peace talks. The statement drew a sharp response from the LTTE last Monday.
The three page statement warned "If the Government adopts a hard-line position and refuses to review its decision on de-proscription, then it should bear full and total responsibility for the collapse of the peace efforts and the serious consequences that might arise from its decision…" Is this an LTTE warning of the shape of things to come?
High ranking intelligence sources seem to think so. They say there are indications of an LTTE build up in the north, particularly in Pooneryn and Nagar Kovil areas. In addition, last week, Police Headquarters circulated to police establishments country-wide reports which speak of LTTE plans in three eastern districts. This is what it says:
Trincomalee sector: Intelligence reveals that LTTE Chief Armourer Paduman has sent a special group of LTTE cadres, along with a large stock of arms, ammunition and explosives, to carry out attacks on Navy and Army Camps in Trincomalee area and that these attacks will be carried out shortly.
Batticaloa sector: Terrorist transmissions reveal that a meeting of all LTTE leaders and cadres will be held on 10.06.2001 at Thoppigala under the leadership of Karuna. This is an indication that attacks are likely to be carried out on STF and Police personnel engaged in security duties.
Terrorist transmissions reveal that terrorists groups led by Mano Master, Thatha and Sachu Master are planning to carry out ambush attacks in Ampara and Maha Oya areas.
LTTE transmissions reveal that terrorist groups led by Kadiraveli leader Jeevan, Jeevendran and Thothiran have left for the border areas of Batticaloa, Welikanda and Polonnaruwa, to carry out attacks on the Police and the Army within the next three days.
Ampara sector: Terrorist transmissions reveal that groups of LTTE cadres led by Kanjikudichiaru leader Rabat, deputy leader Stanley and Sambandan have set out to carry out ambush attacks on STF or Police groups.
These attacks are likely in Akkaraipattu, Tirukkovil, Pottuvil and Manthottam areas.
Intelligence reveals that political leader Karikalan has instructed Kantharuban and Ariyadas, who are in the Kanjikudichiaru area, to force the Tamil people in the area to hold frequent protest demonstrations against the government and armed forces.
If these are clear indications that the LTTE is to step up attacks in the coming weeks and months, both in the North and the East, security concerns in the City and other areas have also prompted the authorities to strengthen precautionary measures.
Until the Government awaits word on the next move by Norwegian Special
Envoy, Erik Solheim, the news from the LTTE appears to be clear. Its back
Just three days after The Sunday Times (in these columns) reiterated the need to withdraw the two year old censorship on reporting the ongoing separatist war, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, decided to do away with it.
The Sunday Times learns that President Kumaratunga made her decision known at last Wednesday's meeting of the National Security Council and sought the views of the Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force over the move.
One of them is learnt to have spoken strongly in favour of the withdrawal whilst others, though did not make any contribution, expressed no opposition.
Before making her move known at the NSC meeting, President Kumaratunga is also learnt to have discussed the withdrawal of the censorship both with Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and Deputy Defence Minister General Anuruddha Ratwatte. It was Mr. Kadirgamar who had recommended the wthdrawal.
A Government Information Department press release on May 30 said: Censorship on Military News Lifted: The Emergency (Prohibition on Publication and Transmission of sensitive Military Information) Regulation No. 1 of 1998 has been lifted with immediate effect by H.E. the President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
With this move, the Media Ministry has been directed to embark on a programme for greater interaction between the military and the media. It is being assisted in this task by the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH). With the announcement of the withdrawal of the censorship, a familiarisation programme is being arranged for media personnel reporting on the war.
The idea is to educate them on various aspects related to the war including the working of the military, the weapons they use, the doctrine they adopt to counter the enemy and the areas where reportage should be avoided on grounds of national security.
"Our aim is to establish a free and frank dialogue by taking the media involved in covering the war into confidence.
Mutual confidence building which should have been done much earlier, will help forge a new relationship since our objectives are the same – the national interest," a senior Army officer involved in the familiarisation programme said.
Commenting on the failure of "Operation Agni Khiela" in these columns, the point was made that it would be both in the Government and the public interest to withdraw the censorship and urge the media to observe certain guidelines. "That way, the flow of correct information cannot be retarded or manipulated to mislead both the Government and the public," it was pointed out.
The Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka welcomed the lifting of the censorship but called upon the Government to immediately ease restrictions on access to operational areas by accredited journalists.
The Guild has already forwarded a set of suggestions for the formulation of guidelines.
It has been sent both to Director of Information, Ariya Rubesinghe and Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle.
Here is the text of the suggestions:
Selection and Identification
Editors should be called upon by the military to nominate their Defence Correspondents or reporters covering the subject. Two names from each newspaper should be nominated. The second is a stand in which the first nominee is not available on leave.
Once the nominees named by the Editors are accepted, the military should provide them with separate Identity Cards.
This is a standard international practice and the card denotes that the holder is a recognised journalist covering military matters. Such accreditation should be recognised by all military personnel.
After the issue of such accreditation, a group from the media and from the military should interact to evolve a set of guidelines, or do's and don'ts. There is no rule book which can be applied carte blanche to every war situation. In every theatre interaction has led to the evolution of guidelines.
This leads to complaints from one side or the other. But a continuing dialogue fine tunes the mechanism.
Among the matters which are of concern to the military and should be expressly avoided by the media could be: Reportage of impending operations. Such reportage endangers lives of soldiers.
Reportage of troop movements from one area to another. This again endangers the lives of soldiers and imperils planned military operations.
Reportage of sensitive intelligence information. Here both the media and the military should identify what they are.
Reportage of war related news that could incite communal passion which would lead to breach of the peace.
The above are part of internationally accepted norms. There are of course a number of other concerns, both for the media and the military. These should be discussed subject by subject.
What is mutually agreed upon can be brought into the guidelines.
Most of the media personnel who specialise in covering military matters need to be given a full orientation of the various security arms. This includes vernacular media in particular have to be made conversant with details of what a Regiment is, what a Battalion is and an idea of the weapons used.
They should also be exposed to non-military aspects – the role the military plays vis-a-vis the civilians.
This exercise will lead to a process of confidence building between the media and the military, a matter of utmost importance.
At present the popular view in the media is that they are treated as the second enemy. Similarly the military is vary and suspicious of the media.
They are content with only the press releases they issue. Once this process is complete, the military should gradually introduce different forms of briefing. They are: On the record briefs -These briefings that could be attributed to the person who is briefing. An example – say the GOC troops in Jaffna briefs the media on the situation in his area. Unlike a press conference, such a briefing is more detailed.
Off the record briefs-
These are briefings only for the information and background knowledge of those accredited personnel. An example – An intelligence official can give them a briefing on misinformation campaigns carried out by the enemy, identify how it is done and how the media should be conscious of those realities.
Objectives- Both the media and the military should be agreed that the former should be allowed to carry out open and independent reporting within the guidelines agreed upon. The media should be allowed access to operational areas too for the same purpose.
The media, on visits to combat zones, will abide by a clear set of security ground rules (to be agreed upon) to protect troops and operations. Commanders in operational areas should be given detailed instructions (including the ground rules) and called upon to recognise the accreditation.
Violations - Those violating the guidelines should, in the first instance, be warned and their respective Editors apprised of the action. If there is a repetition, the accreditation of those violating the guidelines should be withdrawn and they should be blacklisted.
Provisions, however, should be made for the media (and even the military) to have recourse to a senior officer or a committee of officials in circumstances where disputes arise over the withdrawal of accreditation.
It must be made clear that on visits to combat zones the military should not interfere with the reporting process but only ensure the guidelines laid down are followed.
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