Situation Report

13th April 1997

Govt.-LTTE preparing for the next major offensive

By Iqbal Athas

For well over a week, the country’s attention has been focused on the accord between President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, to develop a bipartisan approach towards the resolution of the ethnic conflict.

That was while a relative calm prevailed in the north and east, the main theatres of conflict in the ongoing separatist war. With the exception of an incident where the LTTE seized a Navy boat with five sailors and three policemen off the seas of Mannar, there was hardly a major incident.

So much so the press releases of the Ministry of Defence in the past few days focused clearly on search and clear operations of the security forces, both in the north and east.

There were reports of either Tiger guerrillas being shot dead or weapons being seized from them. Added to that were accounts of civilian groups returning to controlled areas in the Jaffna peninsula and the Wanni.

Was the lull prompted by the accord by the two major political parties to adopt a bipartisan approach ? Or was it the customary lull during the Sinhala and Hindu New Year?

Intercepts of LTTE radio communications in the north by Military Intelligence spoke of conversations that suggested there would be no offensive activity for some weeks. Of course the defence establishment was not taking that too seriously. They felt it may be a ploy.

Heightening this feeling were other Military Intelligence reports of LTTE’s plans early this week. Troops deployed in the axis between Vavuniya and Mannar had been on red alert since Wednesday after reports that the LTTE planned to attack the new defences established after the conduct of “Operation Edibala” in February, this year.

A similar red alert on the same day led to the strengthening of security at the Kokkutuduwai Army Camp south of Mullaitivu. Since the Mullaitivu Military Base was over-run by the LTTE in July, last year, this camp is the front-line defences of the Trincomalee district.

Whilst the troops have been placed on alert during the New Year in a bid to ensure the LTTE does not spring any surprises with days to go for the second anniversary of “Eelam War Three”, the fact that hectic preparations are going on both sides of the battle lines for the next major confrontation is becoming increasingly clear.

During the recent campaign for the local elections, none other than President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, declared at public rallies that the Government would soon establish the land route between Vavuniya and Kilinochchi — a link that would provide communications by road from Colombo to Jaffna. “People from the south can then travel to the north to shake hands with the people in the north,” she declared.

Whilst when and how the military operation to execute this task will remain a secret, Overall Operations Commander (OOC), Major General Asoka Jayawardena, has already embarked on the task of gearing the machinery. On Thursday, he will chair a top level conference at the Army Headquarters where all the senior military officials involved have been asked to attend.

The idea is to be prepared to brief the Deputy Minister of Defence, General Anuruddha Ratwatte, when he returns to Sri Lanka, next week. He was in Hawaii, Honolulu, taking part in a Pacific Area Management Seminar (PAMS) co-hosted by the US and Sri Lankan Armies.

The Ministry of Defence is now busy processing requirements put forward by the Army for a variety of items running into millions of rupees. For obvious reasons the details must remain unpublicised.

Although the Sri Lanka Air Force was keen to ensure fresh purchases are made to make up for the aircraft it had lost, one highly placed Defence Ministry official told me “the matter will be put on hold until the impending operation is over.”

He said “it is only after we open up the land route that we will determine the aircraft requirements of the SLAF.” According to the official, this move has been necessitated in view of the need to keep down heavy expenditure. “We will work out our priority requirements and thus ensure a very heavy burden is not cast on the economy,” he explained.

The official also confirmed that the Government’s plans to hold local Government elections in the north and east awaited the conduct of the military operation to link Vavuniya with Kilinochchi. “Hence there are a number of significant reasons why we should immediately re-establish the land route,” the official declared.

Not to be outdone, the LTTE too seems to be making its own preparations. Security forces in Vavuniya learnt from civilians arriving at the security forces barrier at Nochchimodai, the furthest point north of Vavuniya under security forces control, that the LTTE was also making preparations.

They were digging trenches along what was the main road from Vavuniya to Kilinochchi and were also placing mines along the route.

The SLAF has been busy operating its UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) along these areas in a bid to ascertain LTTE preparations. Military Intelligence officials claim the LTTE is making efforts to either delay or stymie security forces operations to link up Vavuniya and Kilinochchi. They argue this would largely confine the LTTE only to the eastern part of the Wanni region.

In order to avoid such a move, MI officials say, the LTTE has embarked on a number of measures. “It will not be appropriate to define their plans. But we know they tried to make some serious inroads,” one senior intelligence official said.

On April 19, 1995, the LTTE attacked the Naval installations in Trincomalee signalling the dawn of “Eelam War Three”.

With the second anniversary only days away, whether the Tigers will heed a “bipartisan peace offer” or fire the shots for another year of Eelam War Three, only the next few days or weeks will tell.

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