Trinco airstrip: Who's telling the truth?

Armed sentries behind concertina wire and a sand bag barricade guard a statue of Lord Buddha in Trincomalee

The Ministry of Defence in Colombo has taken serious note of intelligence reports of the possibility of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) constructing a second airstrip in the Trincomalee district - a matter that was revealed in The Sunday Times (Situation Report) last week.

Concerns have grown after more reports trickled in about construction activity that is being carried out in secrecy at Uppural near Senamveli, a location 30 kilometres south of Foul Point in Trincomalee. In last week's report I had erroneously referred to the area as Thakarawadi, a village south of Sampur. In effect, the location is east of Thoppur.

LTTE's political leader for Trincomalee, S. Elilan, however, described reports of the airstrip (that appeared only in The Sunday Times) as a canard. He brought to the notice of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) last Monday describing "reports published in a section of the media quoting a report from the state intelligence agency" as a figment of imagination, the Tamilnet website reported on Monday. See box story on this page for the full report.

Mr. Elilan has charged that the "Army has concocted the airstrip story to justify the economic embargo on the residents of the LTTE-controlled Mutur east villages. Evidently he is unaware that the Army had no knowledge of such reports. If they did, it would have come to the knowledge of their higher command in Colombo and consequently to the Ministry of Defence. As I said last week, it was a State intelligence arm that reported on the matter and that organisation is not an off shoot of the Army.

And this week, there was more from the agency which declared earlier that it was being "speculated that the LTTE is planning to establish an airbase." According to them around 25 acres of land have been declared out of bounds to the public. Large stocks of cement were being moved to the area where clearing activity was taking place. The Sunday Times (Situation Report) also said evidence strongly suggest the construction of an airstrip. Here are the new developments that have added to the concerns of the Ministry of Defence:

  • A local dealer in metal with a large quarry site has received orders in writing for the supply of over 10,000 truck loads of metal. Drivers bringing in the metal are told to disembark from their trucks when they near secluded zone. At that point a guerrilla cadre takes charge of the truck and drives it into the secluded area to unload the metal. Thereafter, he returns to the spot where the driver dismounted and hands over the vehicle to the driver to bring in the next load. The process has been going on for many weeks.
  • An international Non Governmental Organisation which provides "aid and understanding" to victims in developing countries is said to be helping in the work. Tiger guerrillas have been receiving extensive help from other organisations too in the home country where the NGO is headquartered. This NGO, according to intelligence sources, is said to receive assistance from UN agencies, organisations coming under the European Union, foreign trade unions and some religious organisations.
  • Besides the loads of metal, civilians in the area have confirmed that large quantities of quarry dust are also being unloaded. At least 50 truck loads had been dumped in one location. Inability to obtain sand without brine to be mixed with cement, reports say, has led to the use of quarry dust. It is said to be much stronger when used after mixing with cement.
  • Large stocks of steel and other construction material have been going into the area from shops in Government controlled Trincomalee town. Before construction activity in this new area was located, cement had been used extensively in the construction of bunkers along the Sampur coast - a stretch that overlooks the Trincomalee Harbour. However, movement of supplies had increased with construction activity in the secluded location.

The Sri Lanka Air Force which conducted reconnaissance using the Israeli built Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) is unable to conclude positively that an airstrip is taking shape. However, it has confirmed clearing activity was going on. One possibility, the Air Force suspected, could be the construction of a highway. But the location is one that does not link any contiguous land area that could be connected through such a highway as the map on this page makes clear. It is located between the Ullacklie lagoon inland and the ocean on the outer side. Moreover, the construction of a highway does not necessitate the seclusion of a 25 acre area and declaring it out of bounds to all non LTTE personnel a fact that the State intelligence agency in question has confirmed beyond any doubt.

Senior Air Force officers also talk of lessons learnt after the LTTE cleared a jungle stretch and constructed a 1.2 kilometre long airstrip in Kilinochchi. Much after the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002, a UAV reconnaissance mission by the Air Force (on November 25 2003) acquired video footage of a considerable clearing in the jungle east of Iranamadu. Later, on February 16 2004 further UAV missions confirmed reconstruction work commence on a runway.

During this period between November 2003 and February 2004, questions were raised why the Air Force was unable to alert the Ministry of Defence on the dangers posed. However, there was one difficulty for them. Some of the construction work has been going on under cover of camouflage nets making detection from the air virtually impossible. That is why the senior Air Force officials were shocked at UAV footage they took on a mission on September 30, 2004 - it gave a clear picture of a paved airstrip with threshold and centreline markings.

In the backdrop of these developments, an intelligence arm of the armed forces has reported to the Ministry of Defence of increasing Tiger guerrilla logistics movements from the North to the East. They have confirmed that warlike material was being moved regularly from locations along the Mullaitivu coast to areas near guerrilla-dominated Foul Point. According to their reports, coastal movements have taken place hugging the sea coast. This has made detection by the Navy difficult.

Though there was no evidence to link such movements with the construction of a suspected airstrip, it was still confirmation that the guerrillas were resorting to a heavier military build up in Trincomalee, the perceived capital for the so-called separate state of Tamil Eelam. Heightening concerns over this report is another by the same service agency that State officers serving in Government offices in controlled areas were being summoned to guerrilla dominated areas for meetings with leaders. The officials had been briefed on a number of matters including the need to help civilians who will be engaged in protest campaigns.

Mr Elilan's remarks that he had on Monday "brought to the notice of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission" reports that LTTE is constructing an airstrip in Trincomalee and calling them to investigate the matter is indeed an interesting one. The LTTE has strongly resisted and continues to resist moves by the SLMM to inspect the airstrip near the Iranamadu irrigation tank in Kilinochchi. Head of SLMM Hagrup Haukland has publicly admitted that permission was not forthcoming.

It is also known that one attempt at inspection was impeded when the SLMM found trees were felled across the road they had to take. In another instance, they had been warned of landmines. Hence, the question is whether Mr Elilan had acted on his own in seeking SLMM intervention to investigate or on the instructions of his leaders in Kilinochchi? Either way, this is a good opportunity for the Ministry of Defence to raise issue with the SLMM.

But head of SLMM Hagrup Haukland told The Sunday Times yesterday he was unaware of such a request either by Mr. Elilan or the LTTE. His remarks came after he checked with the SLMM office in Trincomalee. The deputy head of the SLMM office in Trincomalee Ove Jansson told The Sunday Times he was also still unaware of any such request by the LTTE.

Moreover, head of the LTTE Political Wing S.P. Thamilselvan told Norway's Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Hans Brattskar, during a meeting in Kilinochchi last Tuesday the guerrillas may be forced to plan their own means of providing travel arrangements using their "own land, sea or air capability." It is not only a threat but also a proud boast. Yet, the use of air capability from Kilinochchi would mean the existence of another air field somewhere to land an aircraft. Contrary to some media reports, the LTTE does not possess any helicopters now. It is known to have only two fixed wing aircraft of which one has been identified as a Czech built Zlin Z-143.

Mr. Thamilselvan's remarks to Mr. Brattskar, reported in the Tamilnet website came after the Ministry of Defence put on hold the free availability of Air Force helicopters for guerrilla cadres to travel from North to East and vice versa. Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. (retd.) Asoka Jayawardena has insisted he would review the LTTE requests for air travel case by case particularly in the wake of the troubled situation in the East. Already, LTTE's Trincomalee "Military Commander Col." Anthonydas Soosaipillai alias Sornam and a group who travelled by Air Force helicopter to Kilinochchi are unable to return.

Reporting on the matter, the Tamilnet said: "Frequent consultation between our military commanders from Batticaloa, Ampara and Trincomalee with the LTTE leadership in Trincomalee is extremely critical to our movement's operational readiness to maintain peace. Norwegian facilitators have been providing an acceptable mechanism for us until recently. Colombo's refusal to continue this arrangement has forced us to plan our own means of providing travel arrangements using our own land, sea or air capability. We have clearly indicated to the Norwegian delegation that this will lead to a potentially explosive situation."

Mr. Thamilselvan also had some comments to make on concerns expressed by Indian leaders over LTTE's construction of an airstrip and acquisition of air capability. Expression of concern first came from Indian External Affairs Minister Kanwar Natwar Singh. Thereafter, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also expressed concern during talks in New Delhi early this month with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

The Sunday Times learnt Mr. Natwar Singh discussed the matter further with Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar during talks in Colombo on Friday. India is likely to make available radar to cope with air threats. It is not clear whether they would come as gifts or the Government would be called upon to make payment. However, contrary to Indian media reports of Sri Lanka Air Force officers proceeding to India for training on air defence, no such arrangements have been agreed upon, according to official sources in Colombo.

The Tamilnet report quoting Mr. Thamilselvan on this matter states: "Responding to a question on recently reported concern by the Government of India on LTTE's air wing and India's reported offer of support to the Government of Sri Lanka, Thamilselvan said: Although we are not certain on the veracity of these reports, we can categorically say that all military infrastructures we have built are solely for the purpose of providing safety and security to our people.

Our military capabilities were not built to threaten our neighbouring countries or any other people. However, if India offers military help to Sri Lanka as a response to our air capability, we will regard that as an act meant to legitimize the killing of thousands of our people by aerial bombardment by the Sri Lanka Air Force. We don't seriously believe India will take that stand."

Now, Mr. Thamilselvan says "all military infrastructures we have built are solely for the purpose of providing safety and security to the people." He carefully avoids any reference to the fact that such military infrastructure development had taken place during the period of the over three year long ceasefire. But, Mr. Elilan denies the existence of the airstrip and claims he told the SLMM on Monday to investigate - a fact which its head, Hagrup Haukland says has not been done yet. Of course, Mr. Elilan is right when he says there was nothing going on at Takarawadi, a location which I referred to erroneously.

But how come a complaint he claims to have made on Monday did not reach the SLMM? Or, is this simply a propaganda ploy?

If the LTTE had demonstrated that it has regained fuller political and military control in the East, an effort to extend this to the Trincomalee district has got under way. A senior intelligence official says they have succeeded in bringing life to a standstill in Trincomalee through Hartals. With the influx of more cadres by sea from Wanni a greater consolidation is now under way; the source points out and warns that a delay in remedial measures would only complicate the situation.

The danger to Trincomalee, particularly the strategic harbour, was highlighted by a military team from the United States Pacific Command (PACOM). A study conducted by them during the tenure of the former United National Front (UNF) Government revealed the serious threats posed. Their report said:

"Discussion: The most important base for the Sri Lanka Navy is without question the Trincomalee Harbour.

Currently, the LTTE control the southern portion of the Harbour. From this area, the LTTE have effectively monitored all ship movement in and out of the Harbour, launch suicide and artillery attacks against the Naval Base and could potentially destroy any vessel coming in and out of the harbour. The SL Army is responsible for this area but they have been unable to completely secure it.

a. The SL Defence force must secure this land area. The vulnerable position that currently exists could essential level the majority of the SLN fleet. The result would be that the only re-supply capability for the Jaffna Peninsula would have to come from Colombo, more than four times the distance to Jaffna.

b. Currently there are designated areas for the LTTE and areas for the SL Defence forces. If the southern tip of Trincomalee Harbour has not been designated for the LTTE, it more than likely isn't, then the SL government should be massing police and military personnel in this area in case the hostilities resume. (sic)

c. Without control of this area the defence of Trincomalee Harbour will always be a losing battle. Without Trincomalee Harbour the ability to prosecute the war would be detrimentally affected."

This warning has remained with little or no action taken. It in this backdrop that the ongoing controversy over LTTE backed demands for the removal of a newly placed statue of Lord Buddha in Trincomalee town has occurred. Last week, on the instructions of President Kumaratunga, the statement of a senior military officer in the area was obtained. This was after intelligence reports that he addressed a public gathering and offered support. Now, a group has warned of further protests if any action is taken to remove the officer concerned from the area.

In the absence of the Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandgiri, the task of keeping close tabs on the security situation in Trincomalee has fallen on Defence Secretary. Maj. Gen. (retd.) Jayawardene. He is very familiar with the area having served from there as the Governor of the North-East Province. Yesterday, he chaired a top level meeting at the MoD over recent developments.

Vice Admiral Sandagiri, who returned to Sri Lanka after a week in Singapore to attend a defence exhibition, was on a week-long tour of India last week. He was due in Colombo yesterday. He is due to leave for UK later this month and to USA in August.

If Mr. Thamilselvan's oft repeated statements are correct, the LTTE is continuing to build military infrastructures for "providing safety and security to our people." Mr. Elilan says reports of an airstrip in Trincomalee district are a canard and asserts that he had asked the SLMM to investigate. But Head of SLMM Mr. Haukland has said no such request has been received.

It will not be a bad idea for the Ministry of Defence to raise issue with both the Norwegian peace facilitators and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. They will then be able to find out who is telling the truth.

Elilan report: Canards and concoctions
The LTTE Political Wing leader for Trincomalee S. Elilan has claimed that reports on the construction of an airstrip in Trincomalee district are a canard.

He has told the Tamilnet website that he asked the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) on Monday to investigate this matter.

But yesterday (Saturday) Head of the SLMM, Hagrup Haukland told The Sunday Times no such request has been received from Mr. Elilan or the LTTE. He said he had checked this with the SLMM office in Trincomalee too.

This is what Tamilnet reported last Monday (June 6): "(Tamilnet, June 06, 2005 19.20 GMT) - S. Elilan, Trincomalee district political head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Monday brought to the notice of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) that reports published in a section of the media quoting a report from the state intelligence agency that the LTTE is engaged in constructing an airstrip in Sampoor, Mutur east, is a figment of imagination, sources said.

"Mr. Elilan said that the Army had concocted the airstrip story to justify the economic embargo imposed on the residents of the LTTE controlled Mutur east villages.

"The report said the airstrip is under construction in Thakaravadi in Sampoor. There was no such place called Thakaravadi in Sampoor,
Mr. Elilan said.

"Mr. Elilan said that he urged the SLMM should investigate the matter and make public its findings, according to sources. "Currently SLA has banned Mutur east residents from transporting cement, building materials and fuel from the Army controlled areas. Villagers recently held several demonstrations demanding the removal of the economic embargo."

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