Situation Report

25th January 1998

Bullet for ballot : LTTE enters the fray

By Iqbal Athas

The news reached the leader of a Tamil po litical party contesting the local polls in the north late Thursday.

A messenger rushed down from Avarankal, near Atchuvely, for a regular rendezvous in the now busy Jaffna town, the scene of 250 strong cycle parade last Tuesday and a procession of motor cars including three wheelers on Friday. That was part of the slowly developing polls fever in one and half decades. The meeting seemed an "intelligence briefing" of sorts.

The highly excited messenger said a group of some ten LTTE cadres were spreading the word in Avarankal that residents there should boycott the polls. They were advised to read the Jaffna newspapers on Saturday to realise what they meant. It appeared that something serious was going to happen. The news spread from one Tamil political party to another, from one corner of the peninsula to another. But no one was sure what it meant.

The messenger advised the Tamil leader in question not to visit Avarankal that day. The latter promptly called off the polls campaign he had scheduled in that area. Thursday night passed uneventfully.

An hour after midnight, on Friday, a heavily armed LTTE group, suspected to be around thirty, arrived by boats on the island of Pungudutivu, from Tiger dominated Pooneryn. Pungudutivu, an island north east of Delft (off the Jaffna peninsula) is 11 miles away from the northern capital. It is linked by road through a causeway that reaches the village of Madaththuvil. This island is under the control of armed cadres of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP). One of their main bases is located in this village, a virtual gateway to the island.

Mortar and gunfire began to rain on the camp for almost two hours. When it ended, nine EPDP cadres were dead. That included two candidates contesting a Pradeshiya Sabha - Marimuththu Suthakaran and Kalidas Manickam Ketheswaran. Five more were wounded. They were rushed to the Jaffna Hospital. One EPDP cadre is reported missing.

Before the crack of dawn, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, who was in Jaffna ordered Naval troops to cordon off the island. More Army personnel were rushed to begin a search from one end to the other in the eight kilometre long island. As the sun rose, the havoc caused became clear. The camp had been badly damaged and the attackers had got away with one Light Machine Gun and seven AK 47 assault rifles. EPDP cadres had crossed the causeway to the neighbouring village of Velanai.

Was this the incident LTTE cadres said would appear in the Jaffna newspapers on Saturday? Was it the work of the LTTE or a splinter group that had parted from the EPDP and now contesting the local polls?

The guessing game went on for a good part of Friday as the Ministry of Defence in Colombo hurriedly sought out more details. Confirmation came after dusk through LTTE radio intercepts. One base reported to another in Tamil about the attack and gave details of the weapons captured. There was now confirmation that after a prolonged silence since nominations on December 23, last year, LTTE made it clear it was out to disrupt the local polls. Besides the attack on the EPDP base, it had launched a string of other attacks too.

The first to react was EPDP leader, Douglas Devananda. He spoke to senior Army and Police officials in the peninsula. Whilst requesting escorts to attend the funeral of his slain colleagues, Mr Devananda, now a popular figure in the peninsula, did not hide his feelings. He said he felt the Tigers would make him a target and wanted protection. Heightening his fears were reports he had heard of cadres from another political party, who had arrived from Vavuniya, planning to cause harm.

At dawn on Friday, a Navy detachment monitoring the Kilali lagoon spotted on their radar a boat movement. It was intercepted. Troops opened fire. The occupants jumped overboard and reportedly escaped. Troops seized 500 anti polls posters and sets of binoculars. The posters exhorting citizens not to vote were being taken to Jaffna.

At Nagerkovil, which is outside the security forces controlled area in the peninsula, an Army foot patrol stepped on a landmine. One soldier died and another was injured. He was flown on Friday night to Colombo for emergency medical treatment.

On Friday night, a Police Land Rover was hit by a claymore mine when it was moving near Neervely. A Police Constable was injured.

Since the nominations, the security demands in the north increased. Senior Brigade Commanders in Jaffna say plans to conduct clearing operations were delayed or not carried out due to lack of strength. In fact troops in the area who were later deployed in "Operation Jaya Sikurui" were re inducted only days ago. Logistical problems had led to their delayed arrival from the Wanni.

Evidence of LTTE plans to trigger off a wave of incidents in different parts of the country emerged when Military Intelligence in Vavuniya arrested an Tiger cadre. He had Rs 200,000 in possession and had been sent by LTTE intelligence boss Pottu Amman with instructions to buy a vehicle. That was to be taken to a safehouse where it was to be laden with explosives and placed at a target in Vavuniya. The man is now being interrogated by intelligence officials.

There were increasing signs in Vavuniya last week that LTTE infiltrators planned to disturb the peace.

In the deep south, senior Police officials said there was evidence that the LTTE was behind a number of incidents. Last Thursday night, the LTTE held up four vehicles - two vans and two lorries - at Galge, on the Kataragama - Buttala road. The incident occurred at a point where a Police post was located and later withdrawn on grounds of reports that it may be attacked. Tiger cadres set fire to two vehicles and escaped in two others. A Police constable who was among a search party lost his leg when he stepped on a "Batta" or an improvised anti personnel mine. Two Wild Life Department bungalows were also burnt down.

Despite insistence by the Police, some sections of the security establishment have sought to down play incidents in the deep south. When a land mine exploded while a group of soldiers were crossing the Menik Ganga from the strict natural reserve to the intermediate zone, they claimed the mine had been amateurishly set up. They also claimed the attackers took to their heels after the landmine, detonated by a lengthy piece of wire, exploded. The suggestion was that the attack was not carried out by the LTTE.

But one high ranking Police official who did not wish to be identified was angry at these efforts. He said "if the correct picture is not projected to the authorities concerned, the damage we are going to suffer will be much more," he said. "I have no doubt, both from intelligence we have and from the incidents that have occurred, that the LTTE is planning to disturb the peace here. We will have to prevent this and ensure there is no panic among civilians. Giving them false hopes will only exacerbate problems," he warned.

The Government has soft pedalled spotlighting the developments in the deep south including Yala. The pitch to the public is that it is a situation that has developed as a result of internal squabbling within the Department of Wild Life Conservation.

If so, it is indeed an extremely violent expression on Departmental in-fighting that has tied down both the Police of the area as well as a military detachment.

Only a few weeks ago the Minister Public Administration, Home Affairs and Plantation Industries, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, told a private television channel that the story of the Yala incidents - burning bungalows - coincided with the dismissal/interdiction of some employees of the Department. A coincidence it may have been but to attribute these to an internecine Departmental showdown is good fodder for the gullible. If the situation is as simple as that, why should an Army detachment under the command of a Brigadier appointed as Competent Authority be deployed in Yala when it could be more gainfully deployed in the Wanni to protect the so called "border villages" which have come under serious threat? Or even in "Operation Jaya Sikurui" or in the northern polls where troops are said to be under strength.

Stranger still is the withdrawal of the Police Post from Galge area when they received intelligence of an impending attack. Hardly a way to combat terrorism. Like Alice in Wonderland, the situation in Yala seems to be getting "curioser and curioser."

In the north, the LTTE has showed its hand at Pungudutivu. There was much speculation, nay hope, that the LTTE is not wanting to appear internationally as spoilers of the democratic process. There were claims that they would take a soft military posture at least till the elections are completed. The claims were wishful thinking and not facing up to the track record of the LTTE.

International opinion has not stopped the carnage of the LTTE though it may have slowed them down. It is equally important for the LTTE to maintain an international posture that they are the representatives of the Tamil people and that only they are entitled to inherit the political control of Jaffna and the "Tamil homelands."

To let the election to go by default is inimical to their agenda. This is the challenge that not only the Government and the security forces face, but equally importantly the Tamil polity.

The Government would like to see a lull in the security situation till the planned glamour of independence jubilee is over and they have taken the political credit of the occasion. The question is whether Prabhakaran will allow it.

With "Operation Jaya Sikurui" slowed down, the peninsula hotting up, the instability in the east and with the deep south being added to LTTE options, the Government has more than its plate full.

The celebrations in Kandy and its political significance will further exacerbate the security situation from now on. It finally boils down to the same old story - "carry on politicking."

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