ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 34
Columns - Situation Report

Vakarai: The reality behind the euphoria

  • Major victory for the Army in key area, but the road ahead would be long and hard
  • Four soldiers die due to artillery fire at Echalampattu on Friday
  • LTTE likely to open new fronts after strategic withdrawal

By Iqbal Athas

More than ten weeks of fighting to further secure military establishments and areas south of the Trincomalee harbour reached a climax on Friday.

The Army sprung a surprise on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to secure the eastern coastal village of Vakarai, the scene of many a tale of human misery in the ongoing undeclared Eelam War IV.

Troops that moved northwards from Kajuwatte found their advance to Vakarai halted at the Panichchankerni bridge. Across the bridge, Tiger guerrillas had fortified their positions, retarding their advance. Almost daily they fired artillery and mortar at advancing troops and the Army camp at Kajuwatte.

A section of the thousands of refugees rendered homeless from the battles of Vakarai.

On Wednesday, the guerrillas blasted the bridge. Movement of tanks and armoured vehicles was not possible though pedestrian traffic could traverse. It is here that the guerrillas waited for the showdown but that ended in a meltdown of their plans. Army's elite commandos, who have made many sacrifices since the fighting with guerrillas erupted, had entered the town by Friday morning. They had stealthily infiltrated a coastal stretch in Panichchankerni and moved until they reached a promontory. At that point they had crossed across the thin stretch of the Upparu lagoon to Vakarai. They were later joined in by infantry units. A process of clearing and consolidation has got under way. Only then could the area be showcased for a conducted tour by the media. Earlier that morning some heavy fighting had forced the remaining civilians, an estimated 10,000 to flee their homes. More than twice that number had fled weeks earlier to avoid fighting and more importantly starvation. Food was acutely scarce in those areas and most humanitarian agencies found it difficult to move in to help. The surprise move by the Army caught the LTTE unawares. Quite clearly, they had planned to dig in and fight. It was only a week ago, military intelligence warned that the guerrillas have heavily mined areas near their locations and placed improvised explosive devices. They had also moved in new cadres to the area through sea borne operations. Battle weary cadres had been replaced by those from the Wanni. Casualties had also been evacuated. The use of artillery and mortar caused concerns for the hierarchy of the security establishment. The LTTE had used them in rapid frequency suggesting that the guerrillas possessed large stocks.

Even Friday night they fired artillery from Echalampattu killing four soldiers. Troops who searched the Kathiraveli area, an Army official said, found parts of an artillery gun. He said it had been damaged before the guerrillas withdrew. A Double Cab, Bulldozer and a tractor had also been destroyed, he said.

The LTTE could barely hide their embarrassment. Hours after the Government's Media Centre for National Security on Friday evening declared "troops liberated the Vakarai town today," their reaction underscored their shock. A report headlined "LTTE READJUSTS ITS POSITIONS IN THE EAST" posted on their official Peace Secretariat web site said: "On 19 January 2007, LTTE decided to pull back from its Pannichchankerni position which is on the access route to Vakarai."

Pulling back from Panichchankerni was the most logical thing for them to have done. They had stayed put there, and even blasted the bridge, only to halt the troops' advance to Vakarai. Now that the Army had entered Vakarai, the guerrillas faced grave danger if they stayed on. There were troops north of them (at Vakarai) and south (at Kajuwatte) trapping them in the middle. They were like the filling in a sandwich waiting to be devoured. A delay would have meant disaster in that situation.

The pro-LTTE web site Tamilnet further reflected the embarrassment. In a report titled "SLA TROOPS ENTER VACATED VAKARAI HOSPITAL" it said: "Sri Lanka Army sources in Colombo claimed Friday afternoon that their troops have entered the Vaharai hospital without facing any resistance from the Tigers. Liberation Tigers Military Spokesman, verifying that the Tigers had relocated their positions in Panichchankerni where the SLA had obstructed the land route to Vaharai village where the hospital is located…." The only reason why there were "no combatants" was because the LTTE had withdrawn.

Though the Army believed it would secure Vakarai in days if not weeks, there was hardly any expectation it was going to be on Friday. For weeks now, three different battalions of the Army's Special Forces have been operating in small groups on seek and destroy missions in and around Vakarai and neighbouring areas. It was only early this week that ground based operations were intensified. A commando battalion backed by an infantry unit with armour had moved southwards from a location below Kathiraveli.

On Thursday night, the Media Centre for National Security made two significant points in a news release. Firstly, it said "Field Commanders reported that the LTTE had launched artillery fire from the vicinity of the Vakarai hospital due to heavy casualties following the confrontation with the Security Forces in Panichchankerni and Kajuwatte north of Batticaloa.

"Intelligence sources have revealed that the LTTE is forcibly detaining civilians around the hospital as a human shield in order to ensure speedy medical care for wounded cadres." The LTTE, however, denied they were using civilians as human shields. Yet, the assertion in the press release of the LTTE presence made clear the guerrillas were very much on the ground in Vakarai on Thursday night.

Secondly, the news release revealed a hitherto unknown aspect. It said: "…A large number of civilians who tried to escape from the LTTE and enter government controlled areas via the A-15 were prevented by Tigers. Their attempts to reach cleared areas by sea were also blocked by the Tigers. To prevent civilians escaping the LTTE buried hundreds of anti personnel mines in the Vakarai and Kathiraveli areas." Does this mean that the LTTE also deployed their ocean going arm, the Sea Tigers, in their bid to resist an Army advance to re-capture Vakarai? That is to seal off an exit by the coast. The entire coastal stretch could not have been mined. In fact, the LTTE was also using it. That was how cadres from the north were inducted, those earlier deployed were withdrawn and the casualties evacuated. This naturally raises the question of the Navy's role in the seas off Vakarai.

The re-capture of Vakarai largely brings to an end a matter that has remained the subject of concern in the security establishment for years. That is the LTTE build-up south of Trincomalee, which the guerrillas have declared would be the capital of their so-called state of Tamil Eelam. During the tenure of the previous United National Front (UNF) Government, a United States Pacific Command (PACOM) team warned on this threat.

A repeat of what this team which carried out an "Assessment of the armed forces of Sri Lanka" in 2002 said is relevant. They said:

"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 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."

The PACOM recommended the following measures to overcome the situation:

  • The SL Defence Force must secure this land area. The vulnerable position that currently exists could essentially level the majority of the Sri Lanka Navy 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.
  • Currently there are designated areas for the LTTE and areas for the Sri Lanka Defence Forces. If the southern tip of Trincomalee Harbour has not been designated for the LTTE, it more than likely isn't, then the Sri Lanka Government should be massing police and military personnel in this area in case the hostilities resume.

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.

The task of securing areas south of Trincomalee began with the re-capture of Sampur on September 4, last year. Now that Vakarai and adjoining areas have been re-captured, it provides greater depth in protecting the Trincomalee harbour. More importantly, it denies to the guerrillas the opportunity of directing artillery and mortar fire at the neighbouring Kajuwatte and Mankerni detachments. The Army regaining control of Vakarai denies to the guerrillas a contiguous land-based route from the Trincomalee to Batticaloa district. It will also help in future efforts to re-open the A-15 coastal highway from Batticaloa to Trincomalee.

But there are a number of important reasons why there should not be overt euphoria or jubilance over the re-capture of Vakarai though it is undeniably a victory for the Army. Beneath the embarrassment or even humiliation of having to hurriedly cede the area to the Army, lay a tactical reason. It became known yesterday that guerrilla leaders in the east were ordered by their high command in Kilinochchi to back out if they came under very heavy pressure. Evidently, they wanted to conserve their strength by not suffering heavy losses. That was to regroup and engage the troops again.

For the Army that entered Vakarai on Friday, a string of formidable tasks lay before them. In the next several days, they will have to clear the area and begin complete domination. They have inherited only a deserted coastal township. Then, the vast number of civilians who fled the area has to be re-settled. That will be a challenging task for the Government entailing considerable expenditure. Once that process involving many months is over, the prospect of a return of guerrillas to the area is very much alive.

The population, like the saying goes, is very much like a sea to the guerrillas who could be likened to fish. One such example in the past is the re-capture of the Jaffna peninsula after a string of operations code named "Riviresa."

This re-capture, which some hailed as the end of the LTTE, was celebrated with pomp and pageantry at a ceremony in Colombo on December 5 1995. Barely seven months later, on July 4 1996, in the Government controlled Jaffna peninsula, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva (now the chief peace negotiator for the Government) escaped death at the hands of a female suicide bomber. The senior most Army and Police officials in the district were killed. Just 14 days later, on July 18 the guerrillas launched a major attack on the Mullaitivu military base, one of the worst incidents in the history of the separatist war.

The suicide bomb attack on July 4, 1995 where Minister de Silva escaped was to see a disturbing trend in the months and the immediate years that followed. No Government ministers or senior officials visited the peninsula. Thus, in addition to their security tasks, the responsibility of carrying out many civilian functions fell on the security forces. Would a similar situation develop in Vakarai, which relatively, is less important than the Jaffna peninsula?

Opinion in the higher echelons of the Government was divided. Some said, unlike in the Jaffna peninsula then, in Vakarai any political void could be filled. This is by allowing the breakaway Karuna (Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) faction of the LTTE to carry out political activity. It is on the basis that the group had accepted Sri Lanka's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is through their political arm, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). Karuna, who was away returned to Sri Lanka and is busy building both his own military machine and his political party. The former is to confront the guerrillas whilst the latter to emerge as a strong political force in the east.

There are smaller sections in the same echelons who are deeply concerned. They feel the Government was encouraging and even building another monster, the Karuna faction to destroy the other monster, the LTTE. They argue that on the long run if the Karuna faction emerges as a strong military and political force in the East, the Government would be forced to contend with them. This is on the basis that they could, at a later date, develop their own political identity and agenda. Such a new character, they opine, was likely to pose national security threats of a different sort.

These factors have only gone to make the East that much more significant to the LTTE. Without the East, the guerrilla campaign for establishing a so-called separate state would be like living without oxygen, just impossible. All the more reason why the guerrillas withdrew to fight another day. From the early 1970s LTTE's advisors of various hues chose Trincomalee as the capital of the so-called separate state not only because of the natural deep harbour there. Studies were also conducted on valuable mineral deposits that lay in this district. This is why, as revealed last week, the LTTE set up a base in Kumburupiddy (north of Trincomalee) to oversee the consolidation of a contiguous land based route from the North to the East. This is why the Sea Tigers have been expanding their networks along the east coast despite the recent Air Force air raids. They are still a potent threat.

The re-capture of Vakarai and the recapture of Sampur are only two major steps in trying to isolate the LTTE from the East. There are still many, many more. There are vast areas in the east which they still dominate. For Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who has vowed to "liberate" the east and then the north, the task is therefore gigantic. A fuller appreciation of this aspect, which is of public interest, is not possible in view of the ongoing Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities Regulations.

This also prevents the disclosure of the correct casualty counts. In the light of this, the LTTE has continued to trigger off incidents, both in the north and east, showing clear signs that the undeclared Eelam War IV is escalating. Last Tuesday, just a day after the Thai Pongal holiday, a string of incidents took a toll of at least 11 lives. In Vavunya, a booby trapped motor cycle exploded killing two police officers in the Kachcheri premises. Later that day, five soldiers were killed and two were wounded when a claymore mine fixed under water exploded. They were bathing at the Puthukulam tank. Two soldiers were killed near Vakarai and 22 were wounded. Two soldiers were killed in Mahindapura. Intelligence sources have warned that LTTE attacks in the City of Colombo and other towns in the South were likely in the aftermath of the events in the east.

The re-capture of Vakarai comes shortly after Special Task Force (STF) commandos of the Police seized LTTE's Stanley and other satellite bases in Kanjikudichchiaru in the Batticaloa district.

Commandant of the STF, Nimal Lewke DIG on Wednesday gave the National Security Council a briefing on the STF operations in this regard. A report on the STF operations appears elsewhere in this newspaper.

The near two decades of fighting by Security Forces and the Police (including the STF) in the separatist war have generated considerable international attention. In the past, US Army teams were in Sri Lanka to study some aspects including the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Now, the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence has shown interest.

Representatives of two British organizations will arrive in Sri Lanka tomorrow. One is from the Joint Counter Terrorism Training Advisory Team (JCTTAT) in the Ministry of Defence whilst the other is the Royal Navy Maritime Warfare Centre (MWC). They want to interact with senior officers in the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Police Special Task Force on their experiences in irregular warfare, force protection, securing of harbours and military bases. The three member team is also expected to visit Trincomalee.

During a 90 minute meeting with the Joint Front of National Organisations at "Temple Trees" yesterday President Mahinda Rajapaksa praised the security forces for their victory at Vakarai. He said that very soon the entire east would be cleared - a clear indication that the Government's "war on terror" would continue.

In his last address to the nation on December 6, President Rajapaksa declared "I am not ready to carry on the lament that the North East crisis will weaken our development activities. Similarly, I am not ready to make excuses before you that this crisis is an obstacle in our pursuit of national development. The anti terrorist struggle and the development of the country should be a parallel process."

Thus, there are more signs now that the undeclared Eelam War IV would not only continue but also escalate.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.