The Situation Report14th March 1999
Tigers' mini-bomb campaign IRA style
By Iqbal Athas
Business | Plus | Sports |
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who chaired last Monday's National Security Council, heard details of how the security forces conducted 'Operation Rana Gosa' (Battle Cry'), the first military offensive against Tiger guerrillas this year.
Giving her a briefing was Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya. Like the last offensive in December, 1998, the new one involving two divisions also came on the fourth of the month.
Present at the meeting was Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, the service chiefs and the Inspector General of Police.
Also conspicuous by his presence was General (retd.) Rohan de S. Daluwatte, the Chairman of the newly created Joint Operations Bureau (JOB) - his first appearance since assuming office on January 6. He listened patiently as his former deputy detailed out how the high element of surprise the troops maintained from the launch of 'Operation Rana Gosa' at 11.31 am on March 4, had caught Tiger guerrillas by surprise. By first light on March 6, by which time more troops joined in, the objective of the operation had been achieved.
Earlier, Gen. Daluwatte had handed over to President Kumaratunga a 12 page report on his world tour to study joint military command systems in the United Kingdom, France and the United States. There, he had recommended ways and means of strengthening the JOB and even his own role as Chairman. It is unlikely that President Kumaratunga or the defence authorities will give it immediate consideration since they are pre occupied with the impending Provincial Council elections.
Even if the Tiger cadres did not regularly dominate the extent of some 535 square kilometres of territory re-captured, there is no doubt they were taken by surprise. This was to be confirmed on the very first day after the re-capture.
Just before dusk on March 6, a group of Military Intelligence personnel chose to drive with armed escorts to a cemetery in the newly captured area. They had learnt that the bodies of over 1000 Tiger cadres lay buried in that cemetery. Hardly had they got to the area when they were ambushed by a group of guerrillas. They fired RPGs and small arms.
A Lieutenant, described as a capable intelligence officer (who came second in his training stint at a Pakistani Military Academy) and a soldier were killed. Five were injured.
Some of the troops who were busy with pacification operations were soon diverted to search and clear the area. Others continued to supervise co-operative societies issue two week's of dry rations free to estimated 7500 civilians. This is said to be almost half of the population according to statistics maintained by the Government Agent.
Some consumer items have been flooded into the area. Kerosene which fetched Rs 125 to Rs 140 per bottle was being sold at Rs 12.50. Torch batteries which cost Rs 90 to Rs 110 were being sold for Rs 20.
In the aftermath of the incident, Security Forces Commander (Wanni), Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, directed that civilians be screened and temporary identity cards issued to them. The idea was to isolate suspect Tiger cadres in the process.
Even before the launch of 'Operation Rana Gosa', Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya, has been regularly in touch with President Kumaratunga, briefing her on preparations. Carrying the task further ahead was Minister Ratwatte who flew into the Wanni to chair conferences at the Security Forces Headquarters. He was accompanied by the service chiefs and the IGP or his representative.
'Operation Rana Gosa', like 'Operation Rivi Bala', was executed with hardly any confrontation at all. The only exception, however, was an incident on March 6 when troops operating ahead of the newly captured defence lines ambushed a group of Tiger guerrillas. Four guerrillas were killed. Two weapons, a Global Positioning System (GPS) and a radio communication set were recovered.
Almost all the remaining Grama Sevaka Divisions of the Vavuniya district (14) with the exception of just one now come under the control of the security forces. So does parts of two Grama Sevaka Divisions in the Mullaitivu district (Vannivilankulam and Mundimuruppu) and part of Irana Illuppaikulam Grama Sevaka Division.
If the annexing of a large chunk of territory running parallel from Poovarasankulam to Vannivilankulam secured the A9 (Kandy-Jaffna highway) from Tiger mortar and artillery range, it further thinned out troops from the ground. The prelude to the launch of 'Operation Rana Gosa' saw the withdrawal of troops along the Vavuniya-Mannar highway and their replacement by the Police. These troops are among those now manning the western defence lines.
The political significance of 'Operation Rana Gosa' clearly outweighs the strategic and tactical importance of the military offensive. It is expected to facilitate Government plans to open a new township in Poovarasankulam, extend the northern train line further to Puliyankulam or beyond and launch a re-settlement programme for civilians in the re-captured areas of the Wanni.
Such a move is also being viewed as a precursor to the conduct of polls in the areas, initially local and others thereafter. A success in restoring normalcy in the re-captured areas, particularly in the backdrop of very grim military prospects at re-opening a land based Main Supply Route to the Jaffna peninsula, is strongly believed to be a forerunner to the Parliamentary and Presidential elections scheduled for year 2000. That is if the LTTE does not determine otherwise and embarks on a campaign to stymie it.
The LTTE seems to have responded by stepping up its attacks on transport services and power installations. Last Tuesday night, a Ceylon Electricity Board feeder pillar at Gas Works Street, Pettah, was exploded around 9.05 p.m. plunging the immediate area in darkness.
Exactly two hours later, at 11.05 p.m. two bombs exploded, one in a bus at the Central Bus Station at Pettah and the other at the Railway Parking Yard at Dematagoda.
In the Galle bound bus, a bomb said to be weighing 500 grammes had been placed behind the driver's seat. It exploded injuring three passengers critically and wounding 13. By Wednesday morning, one of the passengers succumbed to his injuries. Military bomb experts say the casualties would have been much higher and more fatal if the bomb had been placed in the middle area of the bus.
The Vavuniya-Matara train had completed its run and returned to Colombo on Tuesday night. After the passengers had disembarked at he last point, the Maradana Railway station, the train had proceeded to the yard at Dematagoda. It was there that the bomb exploded.
By a strange co-incidence, the bomb explosions, both in the Galle bound bus and the parked train at Dematagoda came at 11.05 p.m. - the identical time at which a bomb exploded on a Kelani Valley train at Narahenpita last week (Situation Report March 7).
This week's bomb explosions have puzzled even the intelligence community. Many there had contended that the LTTE would be careful enough to avoid civilian casualties in future attacks they carried out in the City and in areas outside the operational theatre They argued this was why power transformers were being exploded at dusk and bombs on trains had gone off hours before dawn. How does one explain the bomb explosion in the Galle bound bus ?
These explosions come at a time when Sri Lanka is receiving substantial media exposure abroad. A Norwegian Paliamentary delegation headed by Kirsti Kolle Grondhal, President of the country's Parliament, is in Sri Lanka.
They are making an assessment of the political and military situation in Sri Lanka amidst reports that Norway planned to deport more than 400 unsuccessful asylum seekers.
The President of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, arrived in Colombo on a three day visit - the first by an eastern European head of state in 23 years.
Deputy British Prime Minister, John Prescott, made a brief stop over en route to Maldives on an official visit.
Mr. Prescott is to feature in a unique BBC under water documentary about marine life in the Maldives.
Foreign Ministers of the SAARC region are due to hold a three day meeting in Nuwara Eliya beginning March 18.
Provincial elections have now been fixed for April 6 and campaigning is under way. This will be followed by the Sinhala and Hindu New Year.
The LTTE calendar is studded with incidents in the month of April. On April 6, 1974, the first Tamil militant (P. Sivakumaran) committed suicide to evade arrest by Police. On April 7, 1978, Inspector Bastiampillai and party were murdered in Murunkan in Mannar. April 17, 1987, 127 Sinhalese were massacred at Kithulutuwa in Trincomalee.
April 21, 1987, a bomb explosion in Pettah killed over 110 persons. On April 19, 1988 LTTE commemorates Annai Poopathi who died in a death fast against so called atrocities of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).
On April 13, 1989, a car bomb explosion in Trincomalee town killed over 41 persons. On April 10, 1992, a bomb explosion in Maharagama town killed over eight persons and injured 24. On April 29, 1992, over 56 persons were massacred in Alinchipotana, Muslim village in Polonnaruwa.
On April 23, 1993, DUNF leader and former National Security Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali, was assassinated. On April 19, 1995, the so called Eelam War III broke out after 100 days of peace talks between the Government and the LTTE failed.
April 21, 1995, LTTE attacked the Kattaimuruvikulam Detachment in Batticaloa. On April 28, 1995, LTTE fired surface to air missiles destroying an SLAF aircraft. April 29, 1995, another SLAF aircraft was shot down. On April 12, 1996, nine Black Sea Tigers were killed in an abortive attempt to attack the Colombo harbour.
On April 20, 1998, two Main Battle Tanks of the Army were knocked out in the Wanni.
This has prompted the defence establishment to continue the high level security measures now in force in the City. There were fears that attempts may be made by the LTTE to further explode bombs and attack economic targets.
Intelligence officials speak of a two hour meeting LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, held with his senior leadership near Mulliyawalai in late February to formulate future action against security forces.
Prabhakaran has designated 1999 as the "Year of the Air Tigers"- a suggestion that the LTTE has focussed on developing its air wing.
This came in the backdrop of reports that the LTTE had succeeded in smuggling new shipments of military hardware through the eastern coast.
A group of fishermen being fired upon at sea in the deep south has also triggered off fears that Tiger cadres were smuggling in weapons through the southern tip of the eastern coastal waters.
Last Monday, a Navy patrol in the Palk Straits detected an LTTE boat loaded with supplies. They arrested nine persons including three Indian nationals when the boat was headed for the Sea Tiger base at Nachchikuda. Items included 22 cans of diesel (each with a capacity of 75 litres), 16 cans of petrol (each with 75 litres), 12 volt batteries, heavy duty batteries and travelling bags.
LTTE activity in the Palk Straits has now become the subject of top level diplomatic contacts between Colombo and New Delhi. This is expected to lead to a Sri Lanka delegation visiting India to discuss joint measures.
Whether by strategic calculation or by force of circumstances, the security forces and the LTTE have chosen not to engage in a major confrontation in the recent past. 'Operation Rana Gosa', though ostensibly gained a tactical advantage militarily, which to an extent is not incorrect.
The main beneficiary, however, has been the political establishment. The LTTE, on the other hand, also appears to focus on destabilising the Government, politically and economically, by a widespread small bomb campaign. The scenario is that of political parrying.
The bombing of selective targets of economic and utility value in the recent months could in some aspects be compared to the strategies adopted over the years by the Provisional IRA. The systematic bombing of commercial targets has remained a central plank of the Provisionals strategy aimed at economic damage and making governance expensive both financially and politically.
The Provisional IRA campaign has alternated between an ongoing bombing strategy of economic and commercial attrition, and the occasional spectacular detonation such as the 1994 bombing of the Atlantic Exchange building in London causing millions of dollars in damage.
Whereas the main strategic design is to wear down the Government, reprisal bombing, such as for Bloody Sunday or the Bloody Friday explosion of 22 bombs in Belfast, is a tactical retaliation.
The raison d' etre for bombing is manifold in as much as it is a complex demonstration of guerrilla thinking. Martin Dillon, a recognised authority on Irish terrorism quotes an IRA source:
'People think that a bomb is only there to kill people or damage property. That is naive. It can have the effect of demonstrating that we can strike at anything .... The bombs in the City of London were to hit the economic heart of Britain..'
Massive bombs as that of the explosion at the Central Bank in January, 1996, are psychologically devastating, high in human casualties and in damage to property. The extent of the human tragedy alone makes it counter productive to gain sympathy and support for guerrilla causes.
In fact, it attracts international condemnation. Small bombs aimed at selective targets to cause economic and political attrition often go unnoticed and do not result in national hue and cry nor draw international comment. Their impact is localised in terms of public attention though to the Government cumulative in economic attrition.
A widespread 'small bomb' strategy necessitates widespread defensive measures. This in turn entails detraction from more essential priorities and denies the security forces the advantage to concentrate resources. The real value of such increased security, however essential, is also questionable.
Another authority on the IRA, Dr. O'Brian observes as follows:
'The ring of steel increases the risk to the City in two ways. It increases the incentive to the IRA to strike, because of the propaganda value to be derived from penetrating that loudly trumpeted ring. The other way in which the charade increases the risk to the City is that it diminishes manpower to counter the IRA threat. Fixed roadblocks need a lot of trained manpower.'
The bombing of cities and economic targets deprives people of basic civil liberties such as freedom of movement and freedom from suspicion.
It makes everyone a potential suspect and encroaches on the life of the public. Each new security measure imposes further restrictions on the public.
Increasing inconveniences further alienate the public from the Government. That is an objective of guerrilla warfare.
That is not to say that security is not necessary and that all defences be done away with to give freedom to the guerrillas. Far from it, but the point is to balance the need for security with the need for individual, public freedom and fundamental rights.
To a nation at war, facing the unprecedented breakdown in law and order, ever increasing public inconvenience by counter terrorist measures, and severe restrictions to the freedom of movement imposed by security to VIPs and lesser mortals considered important, the balance between security and freedom is critical to the national morale.
Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to