It was past 9.45 a.m. last Tuesday when Special Forces troops of the 53 Division moved into the tiny village of Karuppukutti, nestled amidst stretches of open terrain interspersed with scrub jungle, some nine kilometres north east of Puliyankulam.
The men who had been advancing astride an axis east of the A 9, the Kandy-Jaffna highway, skirted past Puliyankulam. Having arrived at a point east of Kanakarayankulam, the men veered westwards to outflank and encircle Puliyankulam.
This renewed thrust in the ongoing four month long "Operation Jaya Sikurui" had come after military planners stepped up measures.
That is just two weeks after Deputy Defence Minister, General Anuruddha Ratwatte, told top rung military officials at a conference in Vavuniya they needed to be more "aggressive." (SITUATION REPORT September 21).
The days that followed saw military planners pouring in more troops, drawn from other theatres, into "Operation Jaya Sikurui." And on Tuesday, as the Special Forces men advanced, they were confident, the first step to end the one and half month long imbroglio at Puliyankulam had begun. So much so they were ready to break the news this weekend.
A high profile media campaign was on hand. That was to have coincided with this week's Government announcement about a referendum in the north and east, a prelude to the introduction of the devolution proposals. Not only that. Moves were also afoot to partially relax a media ban by allowing small groups to visit the battle areas of the Wanni.
Selected media personnel in small groups are to be allowed to stay in camps and see for themselves how the troops battle it out. Director of Information, Ariya Rubasinghe and Military Spokesman, Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, were busy this week working out the formalities.
Though these measures are being formulated so belatedly as "Operation Jaya Sikurui" enters its 145th day today, it is still welcome. Sri Lankans and the world outside will now have the opportunity of hearing independent accounts of the ongoing offensive, at least some aspects of it.
Last Tuesday, Special Forces men were on the verge of crossing a bridge across Kanakarayan Aru, to cut across A 9 westwards and descend southwards to link up with troops of the 55 Division. Mortars began to rain on them like the inter monsoonal rains that have been lashing the area.
Four hours later, 48 soldiers were killed, 20 missing in action and 308 wounded. Of the latter, over a 100 were described as P1, or having suffered injuries of a serious nature. In a press release, the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, said on Wednesday that 50 LTTE cadres died in the incident.
However, LTTE transmissions monitored by the security forces spoke of 18 Tiger guerrilla deaths. According to the transmission, LTTE claimed it captured a substantial quantity of arms and ammunition - Light Machine Guns, T 56 rifles, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), Mortar Launchers, Mortar Shells and assorted varieties of ammunition.
Tuesday's counter attack pushed the casualty toll in "Operation Jaya Sikurui" to an unprecedentedly high record - over 700 killed in action and nearly 4,000 wounded. Of the latter, only around 900 are being described in military parlance as LOB or Left out of battle.
Most of the deaths in last Tuesday's counter attack was the result of a bitter gun battle between the Special Forces and Tiger guerrillas. But the vast majority of the troops were injured from mortar fire. As the mortars rained on the troops as they traversed through open terrain, some soldiers went to the rescue of their colleagues. It is then that they came under heavy guerrilla fire.
Military Spokesman and Director, Media at the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence,
Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, has gone on record as saying that mortars caused the highest number of casualties in the ongoing "Operation Jaya Sikurui."
Military Intelligence has confirmed that the liberal use of mortars by the LTTE had become possible only after it seized in the high seas the 32,400 bombs ordered by the Sri Lanka Army from Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) in February, this year.
Military Intelligence learnt last week that Tiger guerrillas had also improvised other uses for mortar bombs. They were connected to wires and used as booby traps in support of LTTE ambushes.
At the commencement of "Operation Jaya Sikurui", military officials said, the LTTE used artillery seized from the Mullaitivu military base in a big way. By late July, they had switched to the liberal use of 81 mm mortars. The ship carrying the Zimbabwe manufactured mortars had been moved to a fishing yard in an Asian country where the LTTE has been operating a storage facility. From here, the mortars had been smuggled in small boats from vessels on international shipping lanes off the east coast via Mullaitivu.
Today, The Sunday Times in a Situation Report Special Assignment (on Page 6) reveals exclusively the behind the scenes drama of the ship carrying the mortar bombs that went missing.
In revealing the story for the first time in The Sunday Times of July 20, I referred to the serious shortcomings in the country's intelligence system during the past 16 years of the separatist war. Successive Governments have been more concerned about gathering intelligence about opposition political parties, its perceived political enemies and more importantly on (who leaks what to) the media. Telephones of selected journalists have remained under constant surveillance, more so after new equipment compatible with the French built E 10 Telephone Exchange were installed. They have a capacity to eavesdrop on several hundred lines at a time.
In focusing their primary attention to these parochial, mundane matters, the question is why little or no priority is given to the larger and crucial issues of national security. The saga of the missing mortar bombs brings the question to the fore again.
What are the domestic and international security implications of the LTTE pirating a ship load of mortars ?
The reputation of the Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI), set up in the 1980s with the help of NORINCO, China's leading arms manufacturer, has already suffered. It will remain a black mark. Many countries will be concerned about what actually took place.
But the implications for Sri Lanka will be far greater. The fact that the LTTE took a ship load of mortars will mean a step towards developing their conventional warfare capability. Since 1983, the LTTE has been developing the capacity and capability to control territory by acquiring artillery and mortars.
The fact that the LTTE seized the military cargo suggests that the country's premier intelligence organisation, the National Intelligence Bureau, had failed miserably. Many recent events highlights the flaws of this once prestigious agency.
They ranged from their inability to forewarn the Government or later track down Lawrence Thilakar, former head of the LTTE's "International Secretariat" who travelled to Sri Lanka via India, Nepal and Thailand. One intelligence source said a foreign agency had complained that an NIB operative who was told of Thilakar's trip had failed to report the matter.
At least 60 per cent of Sri Lanka's foreign trained experts in the NIB have been moved out after the PA Government took office. This is said to be on the basis that they were particular favourites of the previous government. For weeks, their exit caused a flutter since some of the men reportedly left without divulging computer access codes. This prevented their successors from gaining access to top secret material stored in computers.
Early this year, two main intelligence agencies, the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) and Sri Lanka Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence, were brought under the supervisory umbrella of the Presidential Secretariat. A retired Deputy Inspector General of Police who is designated as Director General of Intelligence and Security (DGIS) oversees the task at the Secretariat. He is assisted by some senior retired Police officials.
The post of DGIS which came earlier under the Ministry of Defence remained suppressed for over seven years until the new appointment was made. The task of the new DGIS, intelligence sources said, was to co-ordinate the activities of the intelligence agencies so that maximum use can be made of their resources.
One of the weaker areas, intelligence sources point out, is the positioning of untrained personnel in foreign intelligence liaison.
Colombo based diplomats from countries having intelligence agencies with a global reach say events like the seizure of the shipload of mortar bombs would be recurrent unless Government takes immediate action to position competent men and women.
The importance of foreign training is not confined merely to the nature of knowledge and expertise imparted. But as importantly, and perhaps more so, is the value of the contacts they make of other operatives in the international community. It is a well known experience that information gathered usually is more through those informal contacts than through formalised international intelligence networks.
A one time intelligence official who does not wish to be identified said "the previous regime was in office for 17 years. The intelligence men who served then did more for the state than for the party. One bad side about the profession is that the good they do is never recognised."
He said history is replete with examples of intelligence men being moved out on suspicion but being brought back later. He pointed out that after being voted to power in 1970, then Premier, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, moved out some officers. However, after the 1971 abortive insurrection, she brought them back.
Similarly, late President J.R. Jayewardene sidelined some intelligence officials after he was voted to office in 1977. After the 1983 ethnic violence, he brought back the operatives.
The defence establishment is now reviewing why it had to be taken by surprise by the LTTE again. Interrogation of captured Sea Tigers had led to reports of LTTE plans to hijack an ammo ship coming to Colombo. These reports had suggested that Brinthan, head of the Sea Tiger Unit tasked with transporting cargo from LTTE ships to land, have been speaking about it.
The fiasco of the missing mortar ship has once again underscored that the Government has no effective think tank to set guidelines to fight the LTTE's international network overseas.
The need for such a mechanism was highlighted by a one time Inspector General of Police, Frank de Silva, currently Director of the Institute of Strategic Studies in the Ministry of Defence.
A study, completed last year and titled "Sources of Arms Supplies to the LTTE and proposals to dampen procurement" recommended the setting up of a 24 hour inter ministerial operations room between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to monitor LTTE activity world-wide both military and political.
From the intelligence weaknesses outlined, it is apparent that the Government and indeed, all others before that, have totally lost their way in assessing threat priorities to national security. Unfortunately each party holding power regards the opposition as being the main national threat.
There can be no better example of anti national thinking than that of focusing the intelligence machinery of the State in order for self preservation. The threats to the nation are manifold and over the years both vertically and horizontally, the security of the nation has been subverted.
Two insurgencies and an ongoing full scale war has contributed to further deterioration of the national security situation. Lawlessness, political thuggery, unofficial goon squads and the politicisation of the law and order machinery has further exacerbated the situation.
It is not too late to remedy this even though it has gone beyond the point of public tolerance. To do so, however, requires the commitment of dedicated politicians who will serve their country before self and not vice versa.
It is only through proper and timely intelligence that the security of this nation can be safeguarded.
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