Situation Report
9th September 2001

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Army chief's term extended

The term of office of Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, has been extended by another year – until June 14, 2002 by President Chandrika Bandaranaike, Commander-in-Chief. 

Lt. Gen. Balagalle assumed office as Commander last year and his first year term ended on June 14 this year, when he reached the age of 56 years. 

Customarily the term of office of a service commander is for a period of four years and is extended annually. There were, however, exceptions too like in the case of the former Defence Secretary, late General Sepala Attygalle. He served as Commander of the Army for a period of ten years. 

Even if he was advised to call off a trip to the United Kingdom for a defence exhibition, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, had to still take flight from Colombo this week.

Unlike the ceremonial glitter of an exhibition where manufacturers and suppliers parade their wares and their charm, this was a more urgent mission – to personally oversee some critical measures revolving around the Dockyard in Trincomalee – home for the headquarters of the Eastern Naval Area.

More importantly he had to review a new operation the Navy had launched in the north eastern seas this week to curb attempts by Tiger guerrillas to smuggle more military hardware through international waters. There were other tasks too – ensure counter measures are in place if there is a guerrilla attack on the Trincomalee port. This is particularly ahead of a security audit by a team of experts from Trident Maritime – nominated by Lloyds underwriters of London to carry out security audits of all main ports in Sri Lanka.

It is a prelude to a review by the UK based War Risk Rating Committee, which lowered war risk insurance premia following a US $ 50 million guarantee by the Government. Premia was raised consequent to the Black Tiger guerrilla attack on the Sri Lanka Air Force base and the adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake. 

Vice Admiral Sandagiri flew to Trincomalee on Thursday accompanied by Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, Director General of Naval Operations.

It was only last Wednesday that Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva chaired a top level security conference to review security in the country's ports. This was particularly after increasing intelligence warnings that guerrillas planned attacks on the ports, particularly the one at Trincomalee. Earlier, security measures in the Colombo Port were strengthened to prevent any guerrilla attacks.

Even if the security establishment took seriously all intelligence warnings about possible attacks on Colombo and Trincomalee ports, either by oversight or due to the belief that measures already in force are adequate, another main port which appears to be vulnerable is Kankesanturai, where all military supplies are unloaded. The entrance to this port is now restricted to a limited passage since two ships remain sunk in the area. A possible attack by Tiger guerrillas is likely to cause disastrous consequences.

At present, more than 95 per cent of the military supplies to the north, including requirements for the sustenance of some 40,000 security forces personnel and Police deployed in the peninsula, are landed at the Kankesanturai port. An attack to seal off the harbour mouth would cut off both military and logistical supplies to the peninsula. At present only a limited quantity of fresh food items including vegetables and meat are transported by the Sri Lanka Air Force. Even movement of troops, both out of the peninsula and those arriving there, are through the KKS port with the exception of numbers that are air lifted daily.

During the abortive attempt by Tiger guerrillas to capture the Jaffna town last year, fall of artillery and mortar shells brought a complete halt to operations at the Kankesanturai port. Military cargo destined to the area was unloaded in the deep sea with the help of ships equipped with twin cranes. This exercise became a nightmare with a massive security cordon being placed around the unloading areas by the Navy. With threats of guerrilla attacks in the peninsula, such an operation in the event of an attack, would pose gigantic problems to the security authorities. Particularly so, with reports that a sizeable volume of new guerrilla acquisitions were for the Sea Tigers.

For the past five months, the larger volume of the Sri Lanka Navy's resources and attention has been focused on a naval blockade in the north eastern seas off Mullaitivu. Code named "Operation Waruna Kirana," this operation, brought into effect in May, this year, was intended to prevent logistics runs by the Sea Tigers in the seas off Mullaitivu, Chalai and Alampil. A fleet of Naval craft has been deployed in this operation with backing from the Sri Lanka Air Force.

The SLAF has been providing surveillance aircraft, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and carrying out bombing missions with Kfir interceptor jets and Mig-27 ground attack aircraft when logistics movements are reported by naval craft to a Maritime Surveillance Unit. The main aim of "Operation Waruna Kirana," Navy Commander Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri has made it clear, is to deny guerrillas sea lanes for logistics movements.

However, two weeks ago, Naval craft deployed in "Opertion Waruna Kirana," observed on their radar a cluster of boats. They engaged these Sea Tiger boats for a few hours. When the confrontation ended, doubts began to grow whether the cluster of boats were a ploy by Sea Tigers to engage the Navy whilst they smuggled in fresh military hardware. Suspicions were heightened since there was no evidence of any boats loaded with cargo when the fighting broke out.

The Directorate of Foreign Intelligence (DFI) had warned the Sri Lanka Navy that Tiger guerrillas were awaiting a ship load of military hardware, including fresh stocks of Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs), from Kampuchea. It is not clear whether this consignment was the one the guerrillas would have managed to smuggle in whilst engaging Naval craft. In the absence of any confirmation, the Navy wants to be sure preventive measures are in place. More so with intelligence warnings of other guerrilla cargo being awaited.

The conduct of "Operation Waruna Kirana" has also caused severe strains on the Navy's resources. The full time deployment of Naval craft has led to heavier wear and tear or breakdowns and restricted other operational activity. This is particularly in the backdrop of reports that the guerrillas have now shifted smuggling operations through international waters to the high seas off Batticaloa. At least two consignments are said to have been off loaded in this area into small boats and smuggled inland.

Intelligence warnings of guerrilla attacks have heightened in the wake of this week's political developments, particularly the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the People's Alliance and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Despite contentions by PA leaders that the MoU is no barrier to peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, there are serious doubts whether the guerrillas would be now receptive to such a move.

More so with the express provision, clause 20 in the MoU, which says "The People's Alliance agree not to bring in during the one year of this Memorandum of Understanding is in force, proposals for devolution of power or any other proposals that may lead to a controversy until such time that a broad consensus is arrived at through a wide-ranging dialogue with the participation of all segments of society aimed at reaching a reasonable resolution of the national question."

Moreover, JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva told The Sunday Times (September 2, 2001) "if the Government wants to talk to the LTTE, it must first ensure the LTTE makes a public declaration denouncing its demand for a separate state of Eelam." That amounts to, at least as far as the JVP is concerned, to do a volte-face of their stance so far under the Norwegian facilitated peace initiatives. The LTTE took up the position that their commitment to a separate state would be dropped when a settlement is reached with the Government of Sri Lanka.

Hence, the question arises, at least hypothetically, whether the guerrillas would be asked by Norway to drop their plea for Eelam when they re-commence facilitatory efforts if and when a new appeal is made by the Government. Even if one chooses to ignore this issue altogether, the crux of a dialogue between the Government and the LTTE, which Norway seeks to facilitate, lies on both sides agreeing to work out a power sharing arrangement or what is referred to as devolution of power.

The Government, on the other hand, interprets clause 20 of the MoU saying that it does not preclude or bar it from starting a process to find a "broad consensus" within this one year-it only means that the Government cannot unilaterally decide to offer the LTTE any power sharing within this year.

At the end of this one year, both the People's Alliance and the JVP have agreed that Parliament should be dissolved to pave the way for "a free and fair election." Hypothetically again, if the Government's assertion of talks with the LTTE materialises, a settlement through a power sharing arrangement would have to not only wait for an year but until such time the People's Alliance wins the next parliamentary elections.

The simple question is whether the guerrillas are so desperate to talk now, reach agreement, call a halt to all the fighting for an year and wait for the outcome of the elections to win their demands ? Are they so weak and has their guerrilla capability been so devastatingly dented ? There is none so blind as those who refuse to see.

This brings to the fore the status quo that remained after over an year of Norwegian facilitatory efforts. The Government assured the Norwegians it was willing to relax trade sanctions to the guerrilla dominated Wanni and other areas. In return, the guerrillas were willing to accede to a specific Government request – not to carry out attacks in areas outside the theatre of conflict, the north and east. In other words the Government was keen to ensure there were no rebel attacks or assassinations in the City or in the south. It is another matter that such a request tacitly acknowledged the guerrilla capability to strike targets outside the battle areas and the lack of full confidence in the capability of the security forces and Police to prevent them.

But in the context of the PA-JVP Memorandum of Understanding, the exclusion of coming to terms on proposals for devolution of power, any PA-LTTE dialogue will have to focus on the guerrillas seeking to have the trade restrictions withdrawn in return for an assurance that they would not strike targets outside the battlefield. Barring their claim for de-proscription, there are no other known contentious issues the Norwegian facilitated peace initiatives have focused on. Therefore the question is abundantly clear – even if the Government wants to talk, despite the recent rebuffs, whether the LTTE would respond and whether the Norwegian facilitators will be able to persuade them to do so.

Whatever the contentions of the PA leadership is, the security establishment is seriously concerned about new realities. There have been reports this week about a guerrilla build up in the north though none of the other state intelligence agencies, including the Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII) are confirming a Special Branch report that the rebels plan to seize the Jaffna town before September 26, this year.

The Special Branch, which functions directly under the Inspector General of Police, reported "The LTTE plan to launch a major attack to recapture Jaffna on or before 26th September, 2001, which co-incides with the death anniversary of Thileepan and to keep their promise to the Tamil masses.

"There is a heavy build up of LTTE cadres around Jaffna. The Charles Anthony Brigade led by Theepan consists of a large number of cadres. Of these 350 specially trained cadres will be led by Weeramani. A large number of cadres under the leadership of Gadaffi are based at Parapavade, Chundikulam and Nagar Kovil.

"A large group of LTTE female cadres led by Medusha are based in and around the vacant Paranthan industrial chemical factory. They are undergoing specialized training from 2000 hrs to 0300 hrs daily in a paddy field at Kumarapuram, Paranthan. Another group is positioned at Pathukadu, Yakatchiya (reference is to Iyakachchi), located close to Elephant Pass.

"There are several small groups of LTTE cadres at Vallipuram, Akkarayan and Puthukkudiyiruppu. Several LTTE groups are based at Kawadagarimunai in Poonagiri (reference is to Pooneryn). The LTTE intelligence camp at Nanchutiindankulam in Odusuddan where two MBRL weapons are at hand……."

Despite reports of a guerrilla build up in the north, there has been no independent confirmation about guerrilla plans to seize Jaffna town on or before September 26. However, guerrilla attempts to destabilise the east has continued with several incidents.

This week, Special Task Force commandos of the Police ambushed a group of guerrillas last Thursday when they were en route to stage an attack. Two guerrillas were killed and commandos seized a cache of weapons including assault rifles, mortar shells, communication sets and ammunition. One of the dead guerrillas, Vincent, is described as an area leader in Kaludaveli and is said to have been involved in the August 21 attack on the Central Camp Police Station. 

Intercepts of guerrilla radio transmissions yesterday revealed that Vincent had been promoted posthumously as a "Major." The bodies of the two dead guerrillas were handed over by the STF to the ICRC. Last Friday, three civilians and a soldier were killed when guerrillas fired at a checkpoint at Mahindapura, located about 40 kilometres east of Kantale near Trincomalee.

For the past several weeks the security situation was overshadowed by a constitutional crisis. This crisis developed in the immediate wake of the Black Tiger attack on the SLAF base and the adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport, exacerbated the already existing political, economic and security uncertainties.

The crisis in Parliament has been overcome, at least for the present, by the Government negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding for support with the JVP to form a Government for a period of one year. This gives the PA a slender, albeit a flimsy assurance of not being outvoted in Parliament. Though that may give some political comfort to the Government, the burning question of a solution to the ongoing war remains open ended.

The MoU does not contain any reference to the ongoing war nor does it manifest any proposals towards solving the vexed political issues integral to the armed conflict. The only reference in the MoU that has any bearing on the conflict situation is the undertaking contained therein, as mentioned earlier, that the PA would not introduce proposals for devolution of power for one year for a reasonable resolution to the national problem until broad consensus is reached.

Indecisiveness on the political front would shift focus to the military situation and the essentiality of being in a position of strength. This means that the Government should be in a position to exercise its writ over the maximum area claimed by the guerrillas as their homeland and the guerrillas vice versa able to enforce its edict over its claimed territory.

In the struggle for territorial control, the guerrillas retain an unchallenged position in most of the Wanni area of the Northern Province and in the southern part of the Jaffna peninsula. Both the security forces and the LTTE remain deadlocked in their positions and it is unlikely that either side can made any significant territorial gains at the moment.

In the Eastern Province, however, though the writ of Government prevails in almost the entire province, the military situation, though fragile and evenly poised, the province is not rigidly carved out physically between the security forces and the LTTE, as in the Northern Province.

The Eastern Province, demographically with an almost equal population of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslims, rich in resources and containing the important port of Trincomalee, is a strategic plum for both the Government and the LTTE. The past months have seen increasing military activity in this province and in a climate of political uncertainties, it is in here that we will see the escalation of the war. Any setback here will further pressurise the Government, which is already under political strain.

Politically, the PA Government has gained a respite with the help of the JVP. Though, this offers the promise of reforms to the executive, legislative and administrative areas of governance, it does not offer any tangibility of progress to the burning issues of the ethnic conflict which in fact has been for two decades the major hindrance for the political, economic and social progress of the country. Even though that is recognized as the major national problem, it seems destined to receive lesser priority to other issues of parochial power politics. 

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