The Defender Land Rover Jeep damaged in a claymore mine attack at the Anuradhapura Junction in Trincomalee.Right: All that remains of a bicycle loaded with explosives that drove into a vehicle carrying Policemen and soldiers in Batticaloa.Photos: A.T.M. Gunananda

High drama ahead of Solheim visit
Last Monday night, just as ceremonies connected with the Hindu harvest festival of Thai Pongal had almost ended when Army Headquarters hurriedly telephoned their Divisional commands in the North and East and ordered that their troops be promptly placed on "red alert."

Since the near-four-year-old ceasefire, this is the first time troops were placed on this highest level of preparedness for a Tiger guerrilla attack. The order meant that from the soldier to the highest ranking officer had to remain in battle preparedness. They donned battle fatigues, wore helmets and body armour.

Troops went ahead with their Stand Two drill - taking up pre-designated positions, ready with their weapons and systems to repel an enemy attack. Radio rooms and Operations Rooms were fully manned and went into action. Air Force helicopters were warned not to fly closer to enemy lines. Troops near forward defended localities were ordered not to make any noise or engage in action that appeared "provocative". Battle tanks were on the ready. So were artillery positions and mortar points.

At the Security Forces Headquarters in Palaly, a night curfew took effect immediately. It applied to the sprawling military complex that is the nerve centre for all military activity in the North. Such a curfew was a daily occurrence in the weeks and months before the ceasefire. Troops moving from one billet to another or from one unit to another have to be equipped with a "password". If a wrong one was used, they became liable to be shot by the sentries on duty on suspicion that they were intruders.

In other words Army Headquarters had reason to be convinced that an all-out attack on security forces, in the North, East or in both was imminent anytime beginning last Monday night. Not surprising, for reports from state intelligence agencies in the past weeks projected such an eventuality. All Tiger guerrilla preparations had pointed to hectic preparations for attacks. In fact such attacks had been stepped up with the use of claymore mines and therefore fears rose only of the situation gaining a high magnitude.

Why then did these stepped-up attacks not take place much against all what was forecast? Was it psychological warfare by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or were there other compelling reasons? Some state intelligence agencies did report in detail about psy ops by the guerrillas but it had very little to do with most developments in the North and East. They made clear such psy ops, at least some of them, were backed by the guerrillas and were intended to create confusion in Colombo and suburbs.

One such instance took the form of a rumour that an explosive laden private coach was roaming the streets of Colombo. Adding drama to that rumour was one version that spoke of the coach in question carrying a group of school children to thus avoid detection or a spot check. There were rumours of suicide attacks. Even schools were cited as targets. So much so, parents stormed two leading city schools to take their children home early. Panic and confusion forced some private sector establishments to allow their employees to leave early for their homes.

Though armed with the Emergency Regulations, the Government did little or nothing to warn tough action against rumour mongering. As a result, overseas callers learnt of a grim picture developing in Colombo. Tour operators received cancellations. An English couple who planned to have their wedding in Bentota next week shifted plans to a resort in India. The fear psychosis continues.
In the North, the Government learnt the LTTE was encouraging groups to cross the Palk Straits to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu as refugees. This was on the basis that their lives were not safe since a war was about to break out. Already, more than 70 families have crossed the waters of the Gulf of Mannar and reached Rameshwaram. Here again, the Government's media machinery has been slow or totally unable to highlight this aspect, at least by pointing out to the Colombo based Indian media, the details of the latest LTTE campaign.

But state intelligence agencies are in no doubt, despite the accompanying psy-ops campaigns, that the LTTE is on the road to waging a stepped-up war. One of the reasons attributed for the change of mind from not launching it this week, according to them, is the impending visit to Sri Lanka of Anton Balasingham, LTTE chief peace negotiator and ideologue. During a telephone conversation with LTTE Political Wing leader, S.P. Thamilselvan, he is learnt to have asked that a request (from Mr. Balasingham) be conveyed to the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The request was to ensure there was no stepped-up military activity until he visited Wanni and returned to London thereafter. The availability of Mr. Balasingham, it has turned out, is a pre-requisite for the meeting between Norway's Minister for International Development and Special Envoy for the peace process, Erik Solheim.

During this visit, Mr. Solheim had sought and obtained a meeting with Mr. Prabhakaran on the grounds that he was now a Cabinet Minister.
In the past, Mr. Prabhakaran had not met Special Envoy Solheim but granted appointments to then Foreign Minister, Jan Petersen.

The groundwork for this visit was finalised early this week when Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar travelled to Kilinochchi accompanied by the Head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Hagrup Haukland. According to diplomatic sources, there was some disenchantment on the part of Norway over the Government's reluctance to offer a helicopter for Mr. Brattskar, who, as his country's ambassador, was continuing the role of a facilitator at the request of President Mahinda Rajapakse. The envoy and the SLMM head flew by aircraft to Vavuniya and later travelled by road to Kilinochchi.

If such an official courtesy, that was extended in the past is now not available, a helicopter is to be placed at the disposal of Mr. Balasingham to fly to Kilinochchi. This is after he is scheduled to arrive in Colombo in the early hours of tomorrow morning. Though the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) had altogether stopped operating helicopter flights into guerrilla-dominated Wanni in view of the recent hostile actions, the special flight for Mr. Balasingham is on the basis of an LTTE guarantee (via the SLMM) of safe conduct for them. In this context, the question that is being asked is why the Norwegian facilitators were denied the same courtesy. Surely, if the helicopter carrying them was attacked, that would have placed the LTTE in a worst position both locally and internationally.

Senior Government officials tasked with arrangements for the Balasingham visit were yesterday examining the possibility of avoiding a separate helicopter flight being provided for Mr. Balasingham. Instead, they are examining whether it would be possible for Mr. Balasingham to fly together with Mr. Solheim and return with him to Colombo thereafter. That would only mean Mr. Balasingham having a couple of hours with his leader, Mr. Prabhakaran and the LTTE hierarchy. In the alternative, the Government will have little choice but to place a separate special helicopter flight at his disposal.

It is clear that Mr. Solheim's only mission in the coming week is to talk to Government and LTTE leaders on talks about the talks. More pointedly, it is over a venue where the two sides could sit down to discuss the ceasefire. The Government wants the Ceasefire Agreement amended to give it more teeth to prevent the escalation of violence. However, the LTTE is staunchly opposed to any changes in the CFA and wants it "fully implemented." Such a "full implementation," according to the LTTE, has to include the disarming of all paramilitary groups - a veiled reference to the LTTE renegade Karuna faction which the guerrillas allege is acting in collusion with the armed forces.
Taking centre stage is altogether a different issue - where the two sides should sit down and talk. President Rajapakse who had a breakfast meeting with newspaper editors on Friday made clear the Government did not favour the Norwegian capital of Oslo for such talks. Government offered an Asian capital but is not averse to another location. On the other hand, the LTTE is equally steadfast that the meeting should be held only in Oslo.

Unless one side or the other signals a shift in stand, there is no doubt Mr. Solheim would have to return to Oslo empty-handed. Mr. Solheim is likely to suggest the Swiss capital of Geneva for the resumption of talks between the Government and the LTTE.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has conveyed to Norwegian facilitators during informal diplomatic soundings the Government's willingness to hold talks in Geneva as a compromise venue. This is on the basis that the Government is not averse conducting the second round of future talks in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.

Diplomatic circles in Colombo believe the decision over Geneva now rests almost entirely on LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. They say there was a strong possibility of the Tiger guerrillas considering such a proposal. However, in such an event, they believe, the LTTE may place further demands on the Government including the repeated demand to disband "paramilitary groups" purportedly working in collusion with the military and probes into what they term civilian killings.

In such an event, the question also remains whether he would be successful in seeking an assurance from both the Government and the LTTE to observe a "truce" under the ongoing ceasefire. That is until such time he narrows down differences between the two sides and gets them to the negotiating table.
That is not going to be an easy task judging by the fast changing ground realities. Yesterday, Tiger guerrillas accused the Government's Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP) of intruding into guerrilla-dominated areas near Adampan (in Mannar) to carry out attacks. They claimed the intrusion by seven such personnel was thwarted.

The Army, however, strongly denied any such action. "We are adhering to the ceasefire. Talk of deploying LRRP units is baseless. We reject such wild charges," a senior officer in Mannar said. He said there had been a loud explosion last morning that was heard in many parts of Government-controlled areas in Mannar. "They are accusing us to cover up something that has gone wrong for them," he added.

There were unconfirmed reports last night that a senior LTTE military wing leader was killed together with an unknown number of bodyguards in an explosion at dawn in Adampan. This loud explosion was heard several kilometers away in Government controlled areas.

Soon after the incident, reports from Wanni said the guerrillas sealed off their entry-exit points to Government controlled areas in Mannar and conducted house to house searches. In Kilinochchi, LTTE leaders remained tight lipped over the incident.

Incidents in the recent weeks have shown a trend where the LTTE had carried out some attacks reportedly as "tit for tat" action - to avenge purported actions of the armed forces or the Police. Yesterday, troops in Mannar and adjoining areas were on alert for any such action by the guerrillas.

Grenade throwing and other attacks on the armed forces and the police continued this week. A few incidents give an idea:

January 16 (Monday)
An unidentified group fired at civilians at Manipay town in the afternoon killing three females and wounding two others. The LTTE blamed armed forces backed by paramilitary groups for the incident. This was, however, denied by the Army.

An unidentified person lobbed a hand grenade at a picket party near Nachi Amman Kovil in Jaffna. Soldiers escaped injury. In the morning troops recovered two claymore mines near the Settipuram Kovil. Unidentified gunmen shot dead a civilian near Point Pedro.

January 17 (Tuesday)
An unidentified person lobbed a hand grenade at the main gate of the Jaffna Hospital.
Two unidentified bodies were recovered near Kaithady area.
A tractor belonging to the Ninth Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment was hit by a claymore mine explosion near Sarasalai. A soldier was killed and another was wounded.

January 18 (Wednesday)
An unidentified person lobbed a grenade at a picket party near Chavakachcheri. A soldier was wounded.
Unidentified persons lobbed a grenade at a picket party near Chavakacheri.

January 19 (Thursday)
Unidentified persons lobbed a hand grenade at a picket party at Alvai North. A soldier was wounded.
Besides these incidents in the North, there have also been attacks on armed forces and police in the east too. Three policemen and a civilian were killed and 23 others were injured when a truck carrying them was hit by a bicycle bomb.

The incident took place on Thursday. On the same day, three sailors, a policeman and a group of civilians were injured when a claymore mine mounted on a bicycle exploded at the Anuradhapura junction in Trincomalee.
Armed forces have been ordered to take a series of precautionary measures in the wake of mounting guerrilla attacks. Troops who arrive in Jaffna by air or by sea are now ordered to walk to the camps in the outlying areas. The number of persons who could be carried in a military vehicle including the driver has now been restricted to 15. Troops have been ordered not to travel in tractors or open vehicles.

No "stand down" orders have been issued by Army Headquarters so far. But some division Commanders have eased a few measures whilst others are continuing to enforce it.

These new precautionary measures came into effect as more reports of Tiger guerrilla preparations reached military authorities. One report spoke of large billboards in the Wanni calling upon youth to join for the "last battle". They had been assured of remuneration too. Areas in Kilinochchi, off the A-9 highway remain out of bounds to visitors. Traffic along the main route has been restricted only to direct movement with vehicles being forbidden from moving into by roads have been banned. Bus services from Colombo along the A-9 highway have been halted.

Quite clearly, both the Government and the LTTE look to the visit of Erik Solheim as tensions continue to grow in the one time battlefields of the North and East. If an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation remains, a strong certainty if his mission fails, the question is not one of how but when.

Sandagiri’s deals: Supreme Court Judge named to hold secret hearings
Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva has named Justice N.G. Ameratunga, Judge of the Supreme Court to probe allegations of bribery and corruption against Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and former Commander of the Navy, Admiral Daya Sandagiri.

He has also named another three member bench comprising Justice Shirani Tillekewardena (Chairman), Justice N.K. Udalagama and Justice N.E. Dissanayake to probe corrupt activity in all other military procurements.

This follows communication addressed to Chief Justice Silva by President Mahinda Rajapakse. He invoked provisions in the Constitution which allows him to obtain the opinion of the Supreme Court on "a question of law or fact" that has arisen or is likely to arise "which is of such nature and public importance that it is expedient to obtain the opinion of the Supreme Court."

These moves are the direct outcome of revelations made in The Sunday Times that Admiral Sandagiri ordered 20-year-old guns for the Navy's Fast attack Craft (FAC) fleet on the grounds they were "brand new."

Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda said in a report to Gothabaya Rajapakse, Defence Secretary "this appears to have been done deliberately in order to give time for the contractor to find the guns since they were not in production." He added: "Possibility exists that this was done to buy time until the Royal Navy (United Kingdom) started removing their 20-year-old guns from their vessels.

Vice Admiral Karannagoda declared "If the deal went through, Sri Lanka Navy craft would have been fighting with weapons of outdated technology against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This would have had a serious bearing on national security."

It is still not clear how the terms of reference of the Supreme Court inquiry into Admiral Sandagiri's conduct will be formulated. The Sunday Times learns that all aspects of the probe in respect of the FAC gun deal will be included. However, it is still not clear whether there would be reference to allegations that Admiral Sandagiri allegedly tampered with the declaration of his own assets over the years. They were deposited at the Navy Headquarters.
However, a source at the Presidential Secretariat said the terms of reference of the two Supreme Court probes are yet to be worked out.

The Sunday Times has learnt that copies of such declarations were also deposited by Commanders of the armed forces with the Ministry of Defence.
It is also not clear how the three member Supreme Court bench will probe all other military procurements. President Rajapakse had originally wanted such procurements over the past five years be probed. However, during four of the past five years, no major military procurements were made. This was because of the previous United National Front Government signing a Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE. In the year that preceded the ceasefire, only limited military deals involving smaller amounts of money were concluded.
Government sources said yesterday that it was likely the period of the probe of the three-member bench would be extended.

The two Supreme Court probes will be held in secret and a report on their findings is to be forwarded by Chief Justice Silva to President Rajapakse.

Back to Top
 Back to Columns  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.