Columns - Situation report

Two blasts as battles boom in north
  • Vital clues found in abortive suicide bomb attack on Minister Maithripala
  • Govt. seeks DMZ for 250,000 IDPs, but Tigers pitch camps nearby
By Iqbal Athas

The inauguration of a Government campaign to cultivate abandoned paddy land at Bandaragama last Thursday morning saw an uninvited guest - the handler of a Tiger guerrilla suicide bomber.

He closely observed the arrival of Agricultural Development Minister Maithripala Sirisena for what was dubbed as the "national festival" in abandoned paddy fields in the village of Kamuburugoda-Bolabotuwa. He had noted the registration number and the colour of the Mitsubishi Montero in which the Minister arrived. He was chief guest at the ceremony in the absence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was busy in Colombo playing host to Palestenian President Mahmoud Abbas who was on a two-day visit to Sri Lanka.

With the ceremonies over, Mr. Sirisena switched vehicles. He travelled in a bullet proof BMW for his return journey to Colombo. The Minister's six-vehicle convoy was made up in the following order: An Army Commando escort, Mr. Sirisena in the BMW with his Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Security Officer, a Ministerial Security Division escort with police officers, A Police Special Task Force (STF) escort with police commandos, the Mitsubishi Montero with Ranjit Wijetilleke, the newly appointed Secretary to Ministry of Agricultural Development followed by a car where Deputy Minister Siripala Gamlath travelled together with two of Mr. Sirisena's supporters.

The Mitsubishi Montero in which the Tiger guerrillas thought Minister Maithripala Sirisena would travel to Colombo. Pic by J. Weerasekera

Just ahead of 1 p.m. a three-wheeler scooter taxi had arrived at the Pirivena junction at Boralesgamuwa. Alighting from it was a young girl wearing a skirt. With explosives packed to her body, she waited until Mr. Sirisena's convoy reached the area. After the first four vehicles passed, she darted towards the Mitsubishi Montero and exploded. She thought Minister Sirisena was in it. Instead it seriously injured Mr. Wijetilleke, a former Government Agent, Polonnaruwa and caused minor injuries to Deputy Minister Siripala Gamlath who was travelling in the car behind.

P.D.G. Weerasinghe, a surveyor travelling in a Double Cab kept pace with the speeding motorcade. He thought that was the quickest way for him and his party to travel to their destination. Shrapnel including steel balls that flew in different directions following the explosion hit his vehicle. He and an assistant were killed. Another assistant was injured.

It was only after the incident that the Police were able to unravel some details of the Tiger guerrilla plot. A partly burnt National Identity Card (NIC) bearing the photograph of the female suicide bomber bore her name as Wijesiri. The first part of her name in the card was burnt. A mobile phone at the scene brought forth more tell-tale evidence. The calls that she received were from the handler who was watching Mr. Sirisena's arrival in the Mitsubishi Montero. The calls he originated had gone through a tower in Bandaragama. The handler had evidently made a mistake. He had thought Mr Sirisena was returning to Colombo in the same Mitsubishi Montero in which he travelled to Bandaragama. Hence, he had passed down that information to the suicide bomber.

Police found that the mobile phone in question has been obtained by the production of forged documents including the National Identity Card. However, the photograph of the suicide bomber had accompanied the documents. Some of the other leads obtained by the Police are now being pursued.

It was Mr. Sirisena's own ingenuity that saved his life. Three months ago, Police learnt, a suicide bomber had planned to ambush his convoy at a point in Kompannaveediya (Slave Island). This was when he was returning from his office at Vauxhall Street. At least on three different occasions he had been warned of attempts by Tiger guerrillas to assassinate him. That was how he improvised his own method to foil their efforts.

Just two days earlier, a suicide bomber killed Major General (retired) Janaka Perera, a former Chief of Staff of the Army and Leader of the Opposition of the North Central Provincial Council (NCPC). The veteran soldier was declaring open the office of the NCPC Leader of the Opposition in a two-storied building near the old bus station in Anuradhapura. Details of the incident appear elsewhere in this newspaper. On the opposite page our Political Editor comments on it.

The Government accused the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of carrying out the attack. Just two days before the incident, the Anuradhapura town and its environs were put through a thorough "security sweep." This was in view of the ceremony at Sri Maha Bodhi on Saturday (October 4) where leading members of the Buddhist clergy blessed flags of the various battalions of the Army. That a guerrilla suicide bomber could brazenly operate there showed the vulnerability of this key town.

Contrary to repeated claims that in view of the heavy fighting in the Wanni, security in all other areas has been heightened, the Anuradhapura incident showed the fragility. For the guerrillas to carry out such an attack, they needed a safe house for their operatives to live, store explosives and assemble them in suicide jackets. More importantly, communications from the guerrilla leadership to their operatives in Anuradhapura enabled them to execute their task.

With their belongings on a mini tractor a family moves out of Kilinochchi.

Thus, the vulnerability of the City of Colombo or for that matter other important towns cannot be ruled out. This is despite the saturation of soldiers and police officers particularly in Colombo and the suburbs.

The United National Party (UNP), which Maj. Gen. (retd.) Perera represented, accused Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) operatives of carrying out the assassination. There were moves yesterday by the Police, now investigating the incident, to record statements of UNP stalwarts who made the accusation at a news conference. This is on the basis that all aspects of the incident would be probed. It is no secret that Maj. Gen. (retd.) Perera was a high profile target of the LTTE. He had been apprised of this threat following intelligence warnings. In the past weeks there had also been worries on the part of the LTTE that the main opposition UNP was supporting the Government's military campaign against them. Fuelling this were two different events. One was remarks by Hambantota district parliamentarian Sajith Premadasa that his party fully endorsed the military crackdown of the LTTE. The other was the visit to Sri Jayawardenapura hospital by Ravi Karunanayake, Colombo District parliamentarian, to see wounded soldiers and present them with gifts. Media personnel accompanied him and the visit received wide publicity. Yesterday, a LTTE pistol gang shot dead Mahesh Thavachelvam, the UNP organiser for Vavuniya district.

Investigators probing the abortive attempt on Minister Sirisena had observed that suicide bombers were now using an increased quantity of explosives. An intelligence source said "if they used one to two kilogrammes earlier, they are using anything between four and five kilogrammes now." He said this was why the severed head of the attacker was no longer found at the scene of an incident. The increase, he said, may have been prompted by the inability of some suicide bombers to accomplish their target.
The attack on Maj. Gen. (retd.) Perera, both the Police and Army investigators believe, bears all the hallmarks of a Tiger guerrilla suicide bomber. The LTTE involvement in the abortive attempt on Minister Sirisena is now confirmed to be by the guerrillas. This is with the evidence Police have uncovered following details that surfaced with the discovery of the mobile phone.

The two incidents this week come amidst intelligence warnings of signs that the guerrillas were stepping up activity in areas outside the Wanni. This is particularly in view of the ongoing military offensives on their doorstep, in the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. As reported earlier, cadres from the Jaffna peninsula and the eastern districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara who were operating in Wanni had been ordered by the guerrilla leadership to return to their home units. In the past weeks security sources say there have been attempts, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, to carry out attacks and cause destabilisation. A guerrilla cadre arrested with war like material at Tannankilappu (south of Jaffna peninsula) has bared details of guerrilla plans.

In the City of Colombo and suburbs, intelligence sources say, suicide cadres have been tasked to attack VIPs and senior military officials. They have also taken note of a statement from the LTTE Peace Secretariat on what it called the "destruction of the heart of Tamil Eelam civil administration." It came weeks after the LTTE leadership had conveyed to the government through diplomatic channels two different messages on two different occasions. One had been to say they would resort to retaliatory attacks on civilians in the south if civilians in the Wanni were attacked. The other was a threat of retaliation if destruction of their so-called civil administration apparatus continues. The Government rejected both assertions. It had re-iterated that the military campaign was solely targeted at the LTTE and hence the veiled threats were unacceptable.

This is what the LTTE Peace Secretariat statement last Tuesday said:

"While the Sri Lanka Air Force had destroyed a large number of civilian homes in Wanni in the pretext of attacking LTTE military bases over the last one year, the civil administrative structures of the de-facto Tamileelam government were left intact for fear of reprisals on the parallel structures of Sri Lanka by the LTTE.

"However, starting from Wednesday, 1 October 2008, for three consecutive days, there were concerted aerial attacks on the civil administrative structures of the de-facto Tamileelam government. A parallel artillery firing into the heart of the Kilinochchi town was also carried out at the same time.

"On Wednesday, the Tamileelam administrative centre for coordinating all civil services was bombed. Also destroyed was a private outfit KNC, that delivers computers services to the customers.
"On Thursday, the head office of the political wing and the peace secretariat were bombed.
"On Friday, the head office of the Tamileelam police was bombed. Also bombed were a store of the TRO and the district office of a leading women's organization, CWDR.

"None of the infrastructures that were destroyed, the coordinating centre for all civil administrative services,head office of the political wing,the peace secretariat, the head office of the Tamileelam police, the TRO store,KNC, the outfit for computer services, the district office of CWDR - the leading women's organization in Wanni, were military organizations.

"The Sri Lanka Government has carried the above blatant assaults on the civil administrative structures which have clearly violated standard humanitarian norms under the cover of military operation."
The fighting in the Wanni continues. This week troops of the Army's 59 Division operating in the Weli Oya sector made significant gains after breaking through a lengthy bund that had straddled from the west to the east in their path of advance. This is in a location south of the Nayaru Lagoon. Troops have brought this area under their control after seizing more than a kilometre along a wide area. Both sides suffered casualties in the fighting on Wednesday.

In western Wanni too heavy fighting is continuing on two main fronts. In the general area northwest of Nachchikuda, where troops advanced beyond a bund, more territory has been seized. In Akkarayan, troops have advanced some distance northwards. Another column, headed towards Kokavil, is meeting guerrilla resistance but the troops are pressing hard. Reaching the A-9 highway at Kokavil will place them on the main route to Kilinochchi which is 22 kilometres away.

Last week, the Ministry of Defence granted permission for a crew from Al Jazeera television to travel to the frontlines in west Wanni. Here are excerpts from a report broadcast this week by its Correspondent Tony Birtley.

"Birtley: Lot of people are saying this is the beginning of the end. But they have still not finished. They are fighting strong. Army Officer accompanying Birtley: Where could they be fighting again? This is the last battle. That is why they are fighting so hard. They are back to the wall. They have no place to go.

Birtley: The Army may think this is the last battle but no one can get to the Tamil Tigers to get their views. We are now in Kilinochchi district something like 15 kilometres away from the heartland of the Tamil Tiger defences. We got a little bit closer. We have seen some scarred villages which have seen signs of fighting. We have seen that the Army has taken territory, but we don't know exactly, how much they have taken. If they are going as fast as they are, that does seem Tamil Tigers are offering far more resistance than it was first thought……."

It was only last week that Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella declared that troops were only two and half kilometres away from the Kilinochchi town.

Whatever the final distance is, bitter battles lay ahead before troops push forward to take control of the town area. They have already forced the LTTE to dismantle its centre of political power and compelled the guerrillas to shift to adjoining Mullaitivu district.

Last week the Government proposed a Demilitirazed Zone (DMZ) in a ten square kilometre area incorporating the villages of Odusuddan and Viswamadu. The Government expects Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), estimated by the UN to be over 250,000, to move to this DMZ. The move is intended to isolate the civilians from the guerrillas operating from the Mullaitivu district. Earlier efforts by the Government to invite the IDPs to move to Vavuniya with the promise of food and shelter failed to generate an adequate response. The Government accused the LTTE of preventing them. The new move, if successful, would place guerrilla installations in this district outside the proposed DMZ under air and artillery attack. However, the guerrillas have placed some of their camps shifted from Kilinochchi near IDPs in the proposed Demilitarized Zone. They claim the move is to render help to the IDPs.

It is in this backdrop that the monsoon rains have started in the Wanni. The terrain has already turned treacherous this week. A soldier who stepped on a mine had to be moved to a safer location in the rear to be transported to hospital. He was taken in a tractor that took over three and half hours.

Every coming day or week has become critical in the ongoing Eelam War IV. Whilst intense fighting continues in the Wanni, fears of possible attacks elsewhere have underscored the need for enhanced security.

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