Situation Report

21st April 1996

LTTE willing to lose space but not men

By Iqbal Athas

Deputy Defence Minister, General Anuruddha Ratwatte's much publicised Hambantota declaration to end the separatist war by the Sinhala-Hindu New Year has been unfulfilled.

The public are now accustomed to the hollow promises of politicians made down the years. They have got accustomed to living with the war even though this complacency has been jolted by occasional terrorist attacks in the Colombo City. Yet for all, the reality of the war has been dulled by its isolation in the north and the east.

The security afforded by the distance is no longer an assured luxury. Only last week, The Tiger guerrillas followed up their attack on the Central Bank with another major operation targeting the Port of Colombo. Fortunately, the operation did not achieve the terrorist aim as declared by them. Had they achieved with at least some success, it would have had far-reaching political and economic consequences.

It is now known that an alert Port worker was the first to spot the presence of LTTE under water frogmen, well within the precincts of the harbour. He and a colleague alerted the Harbour Patrol. They moved into action but found that they were being overwhelmed by the fire power of a back-up group who had infiltrated into the Port in a vallam. Another group followed in a smaller boat. Those in the vallam began firing Rocket Propelled Grenades and machine guns.

By then the Harbour Patrol had sought the assistance of the Sri Lanka Navy. The Israeli-built fast attack craft Dvora


moved in and took on the two boats. Within minutes, both the vallam and the small boat were sunk, the former within the harbour and the latter, at the entrance.

In a press release from its International Secretariat in Katherine Road, London, the LTTE said:

"Last Thursday at about 9.30 pm six LTTE Black Tigers from LTTE under water diving divisions set off form Mutuwal which is about two miles from the Colombo port. The team included four male divers from the Sulojan Diving Division and two female divers from the Ankayatkanni Diving Division. Around midnight they reached the entry area of Colombo port. Three of the divers attached timed explosives to a fuel-carrying cargo ship and two general cargo transporters moored 700m away. Their timers were set to go off together. The divers them swam out to an LTTE speed boat loaded with explosives outside the harbour. The three other divers headed towards the naval yard where six major fighting ships were moored. They secured the bombs to the hulls of three of the vessels and detonated the explosives together at about 1.30 am. All the six vessels were destroyed and were sunk within minutes of each other.

"At about 5.30 am the LTTE speed boat carrying the mission leader and deputy leader entered the harbour after picking up the three divers who had returned. All the fighters armed themselves with RPGs and AK LMGs which were available in the speed boat and started firing at the neval installations in the port. More than 65 shells were fired from the boat and several rounds of ammunition were fired as the boat engaged the Sri Lankan navy vessels which had now been alerted. While outnumbered, all of the nine accomplished their tasks and attained martyrdom. The Sri Lankan government is taking every possible measure to conceal this major attack which has shaken the very foundations of the Sri Lankan military establishment in Colombo."

A press release issued by the Operational Headquarters of the Minisry of Defence, however, quite contrary to the LTTE claim said:

"On April 12, around 0545 hrs, two LTTE cadres were detected under water at the entrance to the Colombo Harbour by Naval personnel using Sonar equipment. The two LTTE cadres were fired at by the Naval personnel killing them instantly. Two sea Tigers exploded indicating that they were carrying explosives in their person. Around 0615 hrs a white colour vallam carrying a minimum of three LTTE cadres attempted to gain entry to the Harbour. On detection, Naval personnel fired at the vallam sinking it. All three sea Tigers were killed as a result. One dead body of a terrorist along with an identification tag bearing No. ONA 89 was recovered by the Navy. No casualties suffered by the Naval personnel. Two merchant vessels were slightly damaged due to the cross fire. The Navy having effectively repulsed the LTTE attack is conducting a further search operation around outer Harbour to ensure that there are no LTTE infiltrators."

The contradictions in the two versions are obvious. Apart from these contradictions, there are some facts which have not been revealed. It is now known that contrary to the claim by the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence that the LTTE divers were detected at the entrance to the harbour by the Navy using Sonar equipment, that this detection in fact was made by civilian workers who alerted the Port security.

The biggest question is who is telling the truth. Is it the LTTE who claim to have sunk six vessels or the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, which says "the Navy having effectively repulsed the LTTE attack is conducting a further search operation..?"

It is most regrettable that the independent media including foreign correspondents (both print and electronic) were not permitted entry into the Port until late Friday afternoon, over six hours after the incident. Had they been allowed entry earlier, the independent media would have reported on the actual damage and so pre-empted the propaganda by the LTTE office in London that they caused immense damage by securing bombs to the hulls of three major fighting ships and three civilian vessels.

This would have been a far more credible reportage to the official press releases days after the event. It is unfortunate that the People's Alliance Government still has not realised the value and importance of the free media, specially in combatting terrorism, a phenomenon which is abhorred and condemned by the free media and the free world.

The past nine months has seen an unprecedented increase in terrorist attacks in the City both in intensity as well as in the strategic selectiveness of targets. All three targets, the Oil Installations at Kolonnawa, the Central Bank and the Port of Colombo, are of vital economic and political value.

Hitherto terrorist operations have been on soft targets, like bombing public places except for some selected targets of persons. The last three attacks have shown a shift of strategic emphasis. It is apparent that the terrorist strategy in taking the war out of the northern and eastern provinces is not merely to create a backlash problem a la 1983 but more importantly to cripple the Government politically and economically. Public panic and fear psychosis is a consquential fall-out.

One aim of the increased LTTE operations in the City of Colombo is obviously to relieve pressure on them in the operational theatres. By doing so, they not only achieve political and economic objectives but also deny the Government to further re-inforce the operational theatres by tying down the forces in the other vulnerable areas.

By the very nature of the type of operations carried out by the LTTE in the eastern province and the Colombo City in which they retain the element of surprise and initiative, the LTTE are able to maintain a level of operational intensity with the minimum number of cadres.

In direct contradiction, the very nature of such operations compels the security forces to commit resources on defensive measures far in excess of the actual threat. In other words they are committed to protect real estate installations, vulnerable points and other strategic centres which could be potential political and economic targets.

In this manner, the LTTE are able to retain a majority of their cadres in the northern province to deter further Army incursions. This does not mean that the LTTE would contemplate conventional type defensive operations, which quite apart from their inability to do so, would also be extremely wasteful in human resources which is their weakest feature.

The LTTE has also to maintain comparatively large cadres in the northern province not just to combat the security forces or infiltrate into Army-controlled areas but as importantly to give the impression by a significant presence of their strength and assurance of the success of their mission. And so to control the population.

The LTTE must expect the Army to sooner or later extend their operations into the Vadamaratchchi and Thenmaratchchi sectors. Expecting this, the LTTE has thinned out some of its deployments in those areas, especially the Sea Tiger bases. Indications are that the LTTE will not be foolhardy to combat any security operations in a conventional manner as it is not only organisationally incapable of doing so but it also must be mindful that it cannot afford to have heavy losses of cadres.

The LTTE strategy closely follows Maoist thinking and it is likely to sacrifice space in order to buy time and build up the will of the people. In this, the LTTE is mindful of the need to maintain control of the population which to it is its greatest asset.

In "Operation Riviresa", the LTTE demonstrated its strategy by moving the population out of Valikamam into the LTTE-controlled areas of the peninsula. However, to do so in the Vadamaratchchi and Thenmaratchchi sectors should the military launch operations would not be an easy task as any movement can only be outside the peninsula into the security of the Wanni.

Since the security forces straddle the Elephant Pass - Pooneryn axis, any such movement of refugees will have to be necessarily by boat using the sea or lagoon route, a tremendous logistics exercise. In addition to this dilemma, the LTTE must also be concerned by the fact that its appeals to the population in the past few weeks to move out of Vadamaratchchi - Thenmaratchchi areas have not met with the same response as in Valikamam.

This must obviously bother the LTTE who must also be conscious of the fact that any positive outcome of operations to the Government could only be if they are able to retain the civilian population within the controlled areas of the Government. Anything short of this would only be at best a hollow victory to the Government.

The concentration of the security forces effort in the Jaffna peninsula continues to be at the expense of the stability of the eastern province. The focus at the moment of the LTTE appear to be on the eastern province and the City of Colombo.

After "Operation Riviresa", both sides were engaged in consolidating their men and material resources. The LTTE has demonstrated its plans to broaden its strategic approach to the war.

With the increased operations in the eastern province, it is now committed to maintain intensive operations, both in the northern and eastern operational areas. A third front manifested itself in the terrorist operations in the City of Colombo.

The choice of targets clearly indicated a strategy of economic, material and political interdiction thus causing an additional threat to the Government.

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