Govt. in quandary as Tigers step up violence

The bus damaged by Thursday's claymore mine explosion at Cheddikulam along Mannar - Medawachchiya Road. Photo:Athula Bandara

There appeared to be a collective mood change in President Mahinda Rajapakse's Government this week.

Cabinet spokesman and Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva told a media briefing the President had ordered armed forces to act only in self defence and not to provoke the Tiger guerrillas.

The announcement came after Wednesday's cabinet meeting. President Rajapakse had briefed ministers on the prevailing security situation in the country and the peace process. This is in the backdrop of intelligence reports of a heavy military build up by Tiger guerrillas. Such reports also spoke of clear signs they were stepping up offensives against the armed forces and the police.

Naturally the latest order to the armed forces to act with restraint overrides all previous assertions. That is not only by political leaders but also by military top brass about tit-for-tat responses against any guerrilla threats and attacks. In some instances, there was also muscle flexing by troops in operational areas in the North and East. This is in the form of cordon-and-search operations and other activity there. In the city of Colombo it took the form of "Operation Strangers Night."

Though the latter was claimed to be a routine exercise modelled on the lines of what our British rulers did during the colonial era, large number of Tamil civilians including women, to say the least, were both badly humiliated and inconvenienced. The worst moments came when they were paraded before cameramen in the compounds of city police stations. Some men and women were in their night clothes. Some Tamil groups made representations to the Indian High Commission in Colombo only to be reminded that it was an internal matter.

The boomeranging effect of this was on President Rajapakse. The New Year's Eve operations were front page news in most media in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Tamil newspapers published photographs and declared this was the treatment meted out to Tamils by the Rajapakse administration. If that was bad, the worst was to come. Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa summoned Editors of Colombo-based Tamil media to strongly admonish them over the publication of pictures and reports.

There were no such warnings to other media that also published similar reportage including photographs. These responses are clearly reminiscent of the 1980s when such actions created more "terrorists" than they destroyed. Besides this, it also gives credence to claims of discrimination of the Tamil media. This is at a time when President Rajapakse needs a good rapport with them to get his message across to the Tamil people about the peace process among other matters.

Besides the lack a cohesive national strategy, this underscores the futility of an approach with aggressiveness one day and restraint on the next day. Different voices from those in authority are heard to say different things and embark on different exercises. This is by no means to suggest that search operations should be done away with. A one time British procedure, practised in the pre-independence era, has been re-activated 59 years later. However, since independence, cordon-and-search operations have been carried out many a time in Colombo and suburbs.

This was particularly after the advent of separatist violence. But this was on the basis of substantial intelligence and focused on specific areas.
The current searches, it is claimed, are not aimed at one community. The latest one encompassed the areas of authority of eight Colombo police stations.

This is what has caused worries for influential sections of the Government. They ask whether such "blanket" searches would not bring the Rajapakse administration, barely two months in power, into total disrepute. More so when it is claimed that it is aimed at all communities and is being made out that they want to "identify" criminals from all those who lived in a major part of the city.

What of those who fail this "identification" test once practised by our British rulers. Even in the UK, the Police have given up this practice. After last year's London bombings, only suspected "target" areas based on intelligence information were searched for Al Qaeda suspects. But a Police force in Sri Lanka, in this modern era of technology, has to round up all the civilians from large sections of town areas to ascertain who is a "criminal" and who is not.

Influential sections of the Government are worried. Some ask whether this was a plot to make the Government unpopular. One irate Cabinet minister who did not wish to be named declared "I did not know what to tell people who complained that they were virtually dragged from their bed to police stations. Our blunders are only exacerbating problems but no one seems to care. If police were handled by the Interior Ministry before, there is little or no attention over these matters at the Defence Ministry now. All are having a field day." There was a warning yesterday to Police Stations linked to the "Strangers Night" operation that Tiger Guerrillas may attempt a bomb explosion in one of their premises.

Significant enough, the Government's concerns over the need for restraint and thus avert a war was shared last Friday by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). In a statement that dealt hard blows to both the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the SLMM warned "if the Parties don't react immediately they risk going back to war." In an unprecedented move since their deployment here, the SLMM asked "whether there is still a ceasefire in Sri Lanka"

The statement said LTTE involvement in recent incidents cannot be ruled out and declared "the LTTE's indifference to these attacks worrying." It also noted that "…..there have been reports of civilian harassment by the Security Forces in relation to increased security measures."

State intelligence agencies believe there is mounting evidence that the LTTE is making preparations to launch attacks on the armed forces and the police in the coming week. This is ahead of the visit to Colombo of Norway's Minister of International Development and Special Envoy for the peace process, Erik Solheim on January 23. They believe the move is intended to mount pressure on the Government to heed the demand for the Norwegian capital of Oslo to be the venue for a future meeting of Government and LTTE delegations.

President Rajapakse has been categorical that his Government would not agree to such a venue. The LTTE feels that its insistence on the Oslo venue and any inevitable acceptance would plunge the Government into a crisis. This is because the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is staunchly opposed to a meeting in Oslo. President Rajapakse told Donor Co-chairs of the peace process that his Government was not averse to a neutral venue - not Oslo as demanded by the LTTE or an Asian capital as insisted on by the ruling party.

Although the LTTE "decreed" that all Government institutions and banks in the Jaffna peninsula should now re-open, several other preparations have continued. The "order" to re-open came after members of the Catholic clergy appealed to LTTE Political Wing leader, S.P. Thamilselvan. There were also emissaries acting on behalf of the Government extending assurances that troops have been ordered to exercise greater restraint and would not engage in any "offensive" activity.

The exodus of "Maveerar" (or Great Heroes) families, those who contributed one or more member of a family for the LTTE cause, from the Jaffna peninsula to guerrilla dominated areas in the Wanni has increased. Official records reveal that more than 1,245 families have left the peninsula. A large group of students from the University of Jaffna were summoned to Kilinochchi. Barring a handful, who is described as intelligence types, others are still in the Wanni. According to intelligence sources they are being given briefings on assisting or joining guerrilla cadres who will go into action. On Friday 80 families of fishermen crossed into the Wanni following a reported Navy ban on fishing in some areas off the seas off the peninsula.

Yesterday the LTTE ordered traffic along A-9 highway to proceed straight and not to turn into any adjoining roads. Lorries carrying supplies from Colombo to Jaffna have been told to return. The LTTE has also called a halt to bus services along A-9. Tamil National Alliances MPs in the Jaffna district were summoned for a meeting in Pallai and inner Kilinochchi has remained out of bounds to visitors. There were reports of plans to attack a major Naval target.

Last Thursday a bus carrying Navy sailors returning from leave to Mannar was hit by a claymore mine. Nine sailors were killed and seven more injured in the incident that occurred at Cheddikulam, 24 kilometres southwest of Vavuniya. This was near the 18th milepost on the Medawachchiya-Mannar Road. A resultant search operation led to troops opening fire, killing a Sinhala homeguard. The Army said guerrillas hid behind shrub jungle and triggered off this claymore mine explosion, the seventh such attack in the recent weeks.

Claymore mines have become the latest weapon in the LTTE arsenal to be used extensively in recent attacks. The claymore is an anti personnel weapon often used by troops in many countries. It is designed to fire steel balls (shrapnel) out to about 100 metres or more across a 60 degree arc in front of the device that sits on two tri -pods. It is designed for use in ambushes and the LTTE has built improvised claymore mines of various types. The claymore draws its name from a large Scottish sword.
Since November 17 - the day of the presidential elections - a total of 135 troops and civilians have died in violent incidents. Here is a breakdown: Army (39), Navy 38, Police-STF 3, Home Guards 2, Tamil civilians 25, Muslims 16, Sinhalese 6, PLOT cadres 2, EPDP 2, EPRLF 1 and politicians (Joseph Pararajasingham, MP) 1.

Tiger guerrillas have continued their attacks on armed forces this week. Yesterday they attacked a Navy three man foot patrol near kayts killing two sailors. On Friday, a bus carrying troops from Anuradhapura to Trincomalee escaped miraculously when a claymore mine directed at them did not ignite. Later, troops recovered another claymore mine in the area. The incident occurred at Tampalakamam. The same day an EPRLF member was shot dead in Kallady in the Batticaloa district.

In the wake of fears that there would be more claymore mine attacks, armed forces have already formulated countermeasures. Some of them have become tough on the soldiers. An example - movement of troops from Muhamalai to Jaffna, a distance of 35 kilometres, have been by foot for soldiers. They walk on either side of the road clearing the route ahead followed by a convoy of vehicles.

Intelligence sources believe a stepped-up offensive by Tiger guerrillas, now that the Thai Pongal festival is over, was likely to begin either Wednesday or Thursday. This is on the basis of preparations and information received from ground sources. They say Government assurances now of a restrained approach have so far had no bearing. Nor has the appeals of the international community or the SLMM so far.
If this happens, it will no doubt have a bearing on the Solheim visit and the next phase of the peace process. It will also put paid to a visit to Wanni by LTTE chief negotiator and ideologue, Anton Balasingham. He wants to be on hand if and when Mr. Solheim meets LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. That is one priority for Mr. Solheim, now a Cabinet Minister and wants to learn from the LTTE leader himself what is in store for the future.

In this backdrop the coming week is crucial. And there is no gainsaying the Government has to get its act together both in the political and security spheres instead of allowing more contradictions to occur and prevent drifting in different directions.

Kotakadeniya says he acted with Defence Sec's approval
Retired Deputy Inspector General H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, now advisor to the Ministry of Defence, declared yesterday he had obtained prior clearance before inducting Police Special Task Force (STF) commandos to Trincomalee.

"I spoke to Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse and received his approval," he told The Sunday Times.

He was responding to last week's The Sunday Times (Situation Report) which revealed that a retired Police officer, now an advisor to the Ministry of Defence, had been responsible for the deployment of 24 STF commandos led by a Chief Inspector in Trincomalee. It was also revealed that senior military officials in the district were unaware of this deployment. Since then, the Police commandos have been withdrawn on the orders of President Mahinda Rajapakse.

"I accept I was responsible for this deployment. This was done much before Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse accompanied President Mahinda Rajapakse on his state visit to India," Mr. Kotakadeniya said. He pointed out: "I have continued to receive complaints from Sinhala residents in the district. More than 40 of them have been killed. I felt there was a need to strengthen the Police in Trincomalee to maintain law and order in view the strategic importance of this city."

"The STF Commandant (DIG Nimal Lewke) was at first reluctant to deploy on the grounds there were heavy demands on his men. I had to impress on him the urgency over this crucial matter," he added. "How could I wait when there have been so much of public representations to me?" he asked.

Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse declined to respond to Mr. Kotakadeniya's claims. "I do not want to get involved in a public debate on this issue since corrective action has already been taken," he told The Sunday Times.

However, other highly placed sources insisted Mr. Kotakadeniya had intimated to Defence Secretary Rajapakse of the STF deployment in Trincomalee only after it had been carried out. "Since no prior permission for such an engagement was obtained, Mr. Kotakadeniya and other advisors to the Ministry of Defence have all been told not to initiate action on operational matters without the express approval of the Defence Secretary," these sources said.

Another senior Defence Ministry official noted it was "highly disturbing" such things were happening at a time when national security interests are threatened.

Armed Forces commanders and the Police Chief have been apprised of this situation and told not to heed any orders for deployment or other operational matters, these sources added. Such measures, they have been told, would need the specific approval of the Defence Secretary.
The conduct of STF personnel deployed in Trincomalee has become the subject of a top-level inquiry after allegations that they opened fire at a group of students from Koneswara Hindu College. The probe is headed by DIG (Western Province - North) Asoka Wijetilleke and came on the orders of President Rajapakse.

The Tiger guerrilla attack on the Navy Fast Attack Craft (FAC) on January 6 is said to be a direct retaliation for the killing of five students. Navy Headquarters have declared 12 soldiers (including two officers) missing in action over this incident. However, they are believed dead. Two sailors were rescued and another is believed to be in guerrilla custody.
The debriefing of the two rescued sailors have bared some disturbing details. They are said to have been on the open bridge of the FAC when they saw the guerrilla "suicide" boat approaching from the rear and dived into the sea.

The Israeli built Shaldag class FAC, which is fully equipped with sophisticated systems, is said to be worth over ten million US dollars (or over Rs 100 million). Initial reports indicate that the crew had not been in readiness for an eventuality though there was an on board radar with a range of eight kilometres and a gun with a range of a kilometre.
Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, who rushed to Trincomalee after the incident ordered senior officials there to assign hand-picked officers to man FACs.

He has named a three-member team to conduct a preliminary inquiry, a forerunner to a Court of Inquiry. The team is led by Commodore Ruwan Dias, Commandant of the Sri Lanka Naval Academy in Trincomalee, and comprises Captain S.A. Samarasinghe (Engineering Division) and Commander T. Deshapriya Adipola (Electrical Division).

Two Presidential Commissions to probe Sandagiri deals and military purchases
President Mahinda Rajapakse wants to appoint two Presidential Commissions of Inquiry made up of serving Supreme Court judges to probe bribery and corrupt practices in military procurements.

Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, is to write to Bandula K. Atapattu, Registrar of the Supreme Court conveying the request to appoint these Commissions. Chief Justice Sarath N. de Silva is to nominate its members. Mr. Weeratunga is now learnt to be formulating the terms of reference for the probe.

In appointing these two Commissions of Inquiry, President Rajapakse, for the first time, is invoking provisions in the Constitution. This is Section 129 which states as follows:

(1) If at any time it appears to the President of the Republic that a question of law or fact has arisen or is likely to arise which is of such nature and of such public importance that it is expedient to obtain the opinion of the Supreme Court upon it, he may refer that question to that Court for consideration and the Court, may after such hearing as it thinks fit, within the period specified in such reference or within such time as may be extended by the President, report to the President its opinion thereon.

The Constitution states that "every proceeding under paragraph (1) of this article shall be held in private unless the Court for special reasons otherwise directs.

One Commission will probe allegations of bribery and corruption against the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and former Commander of the Navy, Admiral Daya Sandagiri. As CDS, he is responsible for all military and police matters relating to national security. He heads the Joint Operations Headquarters comprising the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police. Whilst the Commission conducts its probe, the Government expects Admiral Sandagiri to continue in office. Admiral Sandagiri has also chosen not to resign in keeping with accepted traditions and return if his name is cleared. Instead he wants to remain in office.

It is not immediately clear whether all procurement deals concluded on behalf of the Navy by Admiral Sandagiri will come under probe. Most of them have been subject to controversy with allegations of malpractices. But the appointment of a Presidential Comm-issions of Inquiry is the direct result of revelations made in The Sunday Times (Situation Report) of January 1 2006. It bared how the Government cancelled a billion rupee deal where Admiral Sandagiri, as former Commander of the Navy, ordered 20-year-old guns for the Navy's Fast Attack Craft fleet on the grounds they were "brand new." A front page news report also revealed how he allegedly tampered year by year with his own assets declarations kept in sealed envelopes at Navy Headquarters.

Pressure moves are afoot by a group backed by a wheeler dealer businessman to make out that the Admiral Sanadgiri's deals were perfectly in order. He is known to have tried to exert undue influence to secure the deal through the present Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda but the latter declined to give him an appointment. Questions have been raised by his lobby why The Sunday Times had earlier "praised" Admiral Sandagiri and was now criticising them. The simple answer - doing the newspaper's duty by reporting exactly what has been going on at various times.

The fact that President Rajapakse has acknowledged the need for a probe on Admiral Sandagiri's deals by the nation’s highest court further underscores the reality of the situation, something which interested lobbies are attempting to hide under the carpet. A Government source said provision is being made in the Commission's terms of reference to identify those who attempted to bring undue pressure to secure the deal and make millions in commissions.

The second Presidential Commission of Inquiry is to probe allegations of bribery and corruption in respect of military procurements in the past five years. A limitation of this probe to five years would exclude many major controversial military purchases. Four of the past five years have been under a ceasefire. Neither that period nor the year preceding that had seen any major procurement being made. It would no doubt reveal a highly disturbing pattern if the period under probe is extended to cover at least ten years including the controversial Eelam War III phase of the separatist war - a period which saw colossal material and human losses.

Most of the procurements made for this phase of the war were controversial and under a censorship imposed during former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's administration, Reportage of them was sometimes prohibited. One such case related to Navy's purchase in 2000 of two Fast Missile Vessels from Israel for US 26 million (then Rs 2,236 million).

One of them was INS Komemiut (manufactured in 1980) and INS Moledet (manufactured in 1979). Both vessels at the time of purchase were over 20 years old. They were renamed INS Nandimitra and INS Suranimala respectively. One was operational for barely two years. The other is now lying in a Navy junkyard while efforts are being made to refit an engine. When these revelations were made in The Sunday Times a written warning was issued by the Competent Authority.

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