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The Situation Report

18th July 1999

Impasse over 'Civilian Safety Zone'

By Iqbal Athas

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If the "Black Tiger Week" to mark the death of 147 cadres of LTTE's "commando arm" in the past twelve years ended last Sunday with no incidents, another week of remembrances began the next day, Monday, July 13.

Sixteen years ago that day, 13 soldiers – the largest number then – were killed in a land mine explosion in Tirunelvely in the Jaffna peninsula. Ten days later (on July 23), that was to trigger off the nation's worst ethnic violence.

If the fact that no major incident took place during "Black Tiger Week" brought a sigh of relief to the security establishment, fears about possible LTTE attempts this week, or in the coming week, has heightened concern. Hence, the stepped up security measures continue in the City and other important towns. Senior security officials say they do not want to take any chances.

Whether the LTTE will resort to any major guerrilla activity remains a crucial question. The past several months have seen a marked departure, with hardly any major incident, commemorative of an event or otherwise, being triggered off. As noted in these columns in the past weeks, this has continued to baffle both the defence establishment and the intelligence community alike. They are both aware of the intense military activity in the LTTE dominated Wanni.

A Civilian Militia is being raised. School children, office workers, businessmen and senior citizens are being put through guerrilla chores including firing practices. Stand off weapons have been acquired.

There were more developments of significance in the recent weeks. The LTTE has mounted pressure on cadres of non militant Tamil groups to quit and join the guerrilla ranks. On June 6, the clandestine Voice of Tigers (VoT) radio made the first appeal to these cadres. They were told to join the LTTE or "remain in peace with their families." Since then, the broadcast has been repeated periodically by the VoT and have been heard both in the Wanni and the Jaffna peninsula. In addition, leaflets were also circulated to members of non-militant Tamil groups in north and east, particularly those helping the security forces, to withdraw.

The result of the campaign can be gauged from a report to the Ministry of Defence by the Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII). Until last week, 79 members of other groups have deserted ranks and joined the military wing of the LTTE. They are made up of:

Jaffna peninsula: 24 (Nine EPDP members from Delft island, Three PLOTE members from Chunnakam, Two EPRLF members from Chunnakam, Ten TELO members from Vadamaratchi).

Vavuniya district: 15 (Nine PLOTE and six TELO members)

Batticaloa district: 40 (Including four EPRLF "Razeek Group," two EPDP and five PLOTE).

Needless to say these cadres defecting to LTTE are no raw hands. They are not only conversant with the terrain the LTTE wants them to operate in, particularly the City, but are also, to a large extent, aware of the modus operandi of the security forces. This is particularly so in the case of the groups that have been playing supporting roles.

In the eastern province, the LTTE has imposed a ban on political activity by MPs of Tamil political parties. As a result, the MPs have been forced to return to Colombo to carry out their official duties. With speculation of a Parliamentary or General election ahead of schedule, possibly before the end of this year, this will place the MPs at a total disadvantage. After imposing the ban, the LTTE has stepped up activity in Batticaloa.

Last Wednesday, Tiger guerrillas set off a bomb opposite the Batticaloa police station killing three civilians and wounding 28. Police said the bomb intended for a military convoy, exploded prematurely.

Adding to these LTTE activities have been reports of Tiger cadres infiltrating plantation areas in the hill country. Details of how this has been going on emerged after the arrest of a hard core guerrilla. He is still being interrogated. Some of the infiltrated cadres, it has been revealed, have been using the plantation areas as their base to conduct surveillance on security forces installations in the area as well as some electrical and telecommunication installations.

These developments came as a day long conference at Army Headquarters last Thursday reviewed the successes made by the Army in operational areas in the recent months. Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, Major General Lohan Gunawardena and Security Forces Commander, Wanni, Major General Lionel Balagalle, made presentations on the gains made by the Army in their respective areas.

The meeting is to facilitate Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, in turn to make a comprehensive presentation to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Also taking part in the conference were Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera and Principal Staff Officers.

If battlefield confrontations have not been intense in the past several weeks, both the Sri Lanka Army and the LTTE, have been locked in an intense diplomatic battle through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It is all over the opening of a route to the uncontrolled areas from Mankulam.

The Sri Lanka Army says it wants to establish a five kilometre long (one kilometre wide) Civilian Security Zone (CSZ) to facilitate humanitarian relief and civilian movements to the uncontrolled areas. The LTTE terms this CSZ a "de-militarised No Man's Land" but insists it should cover a square area not longer than 250 metres on each side. The dialogue through the courtesy of ICRC has now reached an impasse with both sides insisting that the land area suggested by them should form the basis for the proposed CSZ or "demilitarised No Man's Land."

Cherine Pollini, Head of Sub Delegation of the ICRC in Vavuniya has been playing the role of the Good Samaritan delivering messages from the Sri Lanka Army to LTTE and vice versa. The dialogue went on well until the LTTE accepted Mankulam as the gateway for movement of food convoys, NGO convoys, ambulances (carrying the sick) and mail. The movement of civilians, on which the LTTE had imposed a ban, was to be reviewed later.

The Sri Lanka Army defined the CSZ as an area from 140.2 Mile Post to 145 Mile Post. Though the extent involved in terms of these two Mile Posts is nearly five miles, Sri Lanka Army is in favour of limiting the distance to only five kilometres with 500 metres on each side of the A-9 Kandy-Jaffna highway.

The Sri Lanka Army position is learnt to have been spelt out in a letter Security Forces Headquarters in Wanni sent to the LTTE through Ms Pollini, last Wednesday (July 14). On Friday (July 16), the LTTE faxed a news release, purportedly from London, to foreign correspondents and local media in Colombo. It said:

"The talks between the Sri Lanka Army and the LTTE to open a new supply route through Mankulam on the A9 highway have reached an impasse over the disagreement pertaining to modalities to create a de-militarised zone.

"The LTTE leadership has rejected the government's proposal that the Tamil guerrillas should withdraw five kilometres from their present forward defence lines to create a demilitarised "no-man's land". The LTTE has told the ICRC delegates, who have been mediating between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil fighters that Sri Lanka's proposal has serious strategic and military implications disadvantageous to the LTTE. It is well known that the Liberation Tigers have fought a bloody defensive battle for nearly two years and foiled Sri Lanka's offensive operation called "Jayasukuri" (Victory Assured) to open up the A9 highway from Vavuniya to Jaffna. Sri Lanka abandoned the offensive operation with the fall of Killinochchi military complex in the hands of the LTTE and presently the government troops are bogged down in the Mankulam jungles. The LTTE suspects the wihdrawal of its forces to several miles back from its present entrenched positions to create a demilitarised zone might encourage the army to embark on a new adventure to move forward along the A9 highway. The LTTE views that the government, by stipulating an unfair and unacceptable demand on the guerrillas, is deliberately delaying the food and other essential supplies to Vanni population." "Over half a million Tamil people in the LTTE controlled Vanni area in northern Sri Lanka are facing the spectre of starvation following the closure of the supply route at Ugilankulam by the Sri Lankan military authorities on the 26th May this year when they launched operation Rana Gosa in the Mannar district.

"Relief food supplies medicines and other essential items to the war affected population have been suspended ever since the closure of this route along with ambulance and postal services. In view of this critical situation the LTTE agreed in principle to open the Mankulam route to facilitate the food supply and the movement of civilians. But the Sri Lanka army is stipulating modalities which are unacceptable to the LTTE".

The Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence responded yesterday to the LTTE press release. It said:

"The LTTE is yet to respond to a Sri Lanka Army request, through the ICRC, to re-consider its position towards the setting up of a Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ) to serve the humanitarian needs of civilians in uncleared areas in the Wanni.

"The delay, needless to say, is prolonging efforts to expedite humanitarian needs of civilians via Mankulam – a choice made by the LTTE themselves from three different routes suggested by the Sri Lanka Army.

"However, in a press release faxed to Colombo based media on Friday, 15th July, the LTTE has sought to divert attention from the real issue – the setting of CSZ – and has made a vain attempt to mislead the local and international community.

"The news release claims "LTTE leadership has rejected the government's proposal that the Tamil guerrilas should withdraw five kilometres from their present forward defence lines …."

"The Sri Lanka Army has made it clear that the CSZ should encompass a distance of five kilometres from Mankulam i.e. from 140.2 Mile Post, the furthest point under Army control. To claim that "the LTTE should withdraw five kilometres from their present forward defence lines …", quite clearly, is grossly misleading.

"The LTTE claims that the proposal to establish a CSZ has "serious strategic and military implications disadvantageous …" and adds that "withdrawal of its forces to several miles back from the present entrenched positions…. might encourage the Army to embark on a new adventure to move forward along the A-9 highway".

"The Sri Lanka Army has made it quite clear the proposal to set up a CSZ was made bearing in mind the need to avoid/minimise confrontations that will cause severe hardships to civilians. The SLA also asserted that the extent which the LTTE wants to call a "demilitarised No Man's Land", a 250 square metre area, is hardly adequate to ensure the safety of the civilians. The extent is half the size of a football field.

"In making the proposal for a Civilian Safety Zone, the Sri Lanka Army, like any Army in a similar situation, was fully conscious of the military implications and disadvantages it faced. Yet, bearing in mind the sufferings of the civilian public, the SLA made the proposal notwithstanding the security implications involved.

"The press release claims "The LTTE suspects the withdrawal of its forces to several miles back from its present entrenched positions…" Once again a misleading claim when the length of the CSZ is only five kilometres and not "several miles".

"To hide behind purported "strategic and military implictions" and to claim that the CSZ might encourage the Army to embark on a new adventure to move forward along the A-9 highway" is a mischievious exercise in futility.

"The Sri Lanka Army proposal for a CSZ, made through the ICRC, has been acknowledged by both the local and international community as a welcome move. The SLA will naturally honour its obligations in the spirit in which they have been made.

"But the SLA, which is fighting a separatist war, cannot be expected to give assurances to allay purported LTTE fears or paranoia of "strategic and military implications".

"It has become very clear that the LTTE's delaying tactics, for reasons better known to themselves, is placing greater hardships on a civilian population whose cause it claims to champion".

However the LTTE responded yesterday afternoon to the last note Sri Lanka Army sent them through the ICRC. Details of the message were not available immediately. A high ranking source at Army Headquaters said the LTTE has merely re-iterated their position of a "de-militarised No Man's Land" 250 meters long and 250 meters on each side. According to the source, the LTTE has assured guarantee of security.

The ongoing impasse has caused severe concern for the ICRC, which in accordance with its mandate given by the international community, has developed activities aimed at assisting and protecting the victims of internal armed conflict in Sri Lanka.

Max Hadorn, the head of the ICRC delegation in Sri Lanka, I understand, has urged both the Government and the LTTE to do their utmost to overcome the deadlock over the opening of the route through Mankulam. He has also urged that consideration be given to the possibility of opening even alternative passages across the lines to help patients, civilians, humanitarian organisations and commodities essential for the welfare and health of the civilian population in the Wanni.

Accorrding to Defence Ministry sources, the ICRC, whose role in Sri Lanka is guided by neutrality, impartiality and independence, has observed that since end of April, this year, the supply of food and other essential items has been seriously hampered. The ICRC has said it is deeply concerned that the health condition and nutritional status of large segments of the civilian population depending on Government Agent's assistance will further deteriorate.

The ICRC has said that this is corroborated by information they have received from respective Government Agents in Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, all indicating that their stocks of essential items in the Wanni are extremely low, if not empty of commodities such as flour, sugar and milk powder.

Likewise, the ICRC has noted that according to the District Medical Officers of for Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu the stocks of drugs are very low and few essential drugs are not available any more. The other major problem is that patients cannot be transferred to Vavuniya hospital. As a result four of them died during the last few weeks. According to information received by the ICRC health delegates on 15.07, ten patients were in need of an urgent transfer to Vavuniya hospital and 76 required a less urgent transfer.

Another distressing matter for civilians, the ICRC has said, is the disruption of the postal service. It affects in particular those who were recently displaced and who have lost track of their next of kin. The present situation is deeply hampering the services and activities in favour of the civilian population provided by ICRC, other international organisations and government servants active across the lines, the ICRC has pointed out.

The ICRC has reminded both the Government and the LTTE that according to international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict have a responsibility to spare civilians from the effects of hostilities and take necessary measures to ensure that wounded and sick are cared for, and allow relief action to civilians suffering undue hardship owing to lack of supplies essential for their survival.

As repeatedly mentioned in these columns, all activities of the LTTE indicate the inescapable conclusion that they are strengthening their organisation, militarily, logistically and politically. Their widespread activity in the total land area of the so called Eelam is indicative of their territorial consolidation. The extension of activities to the hill country and to subvert other Tamil groups supporting the Government also shows they are consciously penetrating Tamil opinion outside the areas of their territorial control.

All this activity in Sri Lanka is combined with heightened international activity, again at politico-diplomatic level, and in propaganda to the Tamil disaspora, clearly reveals a well thought out strategic design of a political offensive against the Government whilst at the same time strengthening their military capabilities.

Paranthan gets ambulance

Soldiers in the hazardous Paranthan defences will soon receive ambulances to travel to a heli pad in Elephant Pass if they are wounded in action.

Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, has ordered that an ambulance be provided immediately to the Paranthan sector. An Army official said yesterday that the ambulance was now on its way by ship to Jaffna from where it will be driven overland to Paranthan.

The move to provide an ambulance to Paranthan was the direct result of exposures made in the Situation Report column.

In the Situation Report – Special Assignment of June 20, The Sunday Times reported how soldiers wounded in action in Paranthan were being transported in a tractor/trailer to the heli pad to be flown to the Palaly Hospital. Soldiers wanted the problem highlighted and declared that was the biggest service (lokuma sevaya) The Sunday Times could do.

In the Situation Report of July 11, The Sunday Times reported how soldiers in the Paranthan defences came under mortar attack one morning. Two soldiers died on the spot. Three more were wounded, with one of them losing both legs. Even the tractor/trailer was not available to move them to the heli pad. Junior officers had to plead with their colleagues to obtain a Double Cab used by a battalion commander (who was then on leave). They were transported in the cab area.

After the July 11 report, senior officials at Army Headquarters also received telephone calls from wealthy members of the public. They inquired about costs of an ambulance and how contributions could be made.

General Officer Commander (GOC) Army's 54 Division at Elephant Pass, Major General Sarath Munasinghe, had hardly heard the news of the ambulance being shipped when his phone rang. It was the GOC of the 51 Division in Jaffna, Major General Nihal Marambe.

Maj. Gen. Marambe told Maj. Gen. Munasinghe that his Commander for 513 Brigade, Col. Rajitha Silva, was sending the ambulance allotted to his Brigade to Paranthan. He (Col. Silva) had been moved by The Sunday Times report of July 11.

Col. Silva has explained that the ambulance allotted to his brigade was hardly used and the hospital was just five minutes away. With limited guerrilla activity in that brigade area, the ambulance had sometimes been used to transport supplies. 'It will now be used for a deserving cause," Maj. Gen. Marambe had told Maj. Gen. Munasinghe.

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