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A British attempt to rescue the Tigers (Part 02)

"The damage and destruction inflicted by the LTTE on Sri Lanka through military offensives, diversionary tactics and terror attacks, though not inconsequential, have also not curtailed the capacity of the armed forces of the government to defend the country. Unlike over certain spells in the past, the security forces are being provided with inspiring leadership. A steady supply of weapons and equipment is being maintained. The morale is reported to be high. In contrast, it would be well neigh impossible for the LTTE to recover from the setbacks it has suffered since mid-2006." Image: Pro LTTE rally in London
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(March 04, Kandy, Sri Lanka Guardian) It has, in fact, been asserted that the president attempted at this time to initiate a dialogue (kept secret from his main ‘nationalist’ allies?) with the Vanni high-command in order to curtail the rising tensions and lead to a resumption of the peace talks. One could speculate that the exercise of caution and restraint by the president, even at the risk of creating dissension within the government parliamentary group and being charged with violating his election pledges, was intended mainly to preserve the ceasefire so as to keep the doors open for negotiations with the LTTE. Although no progress towards peace had been made at the brief meeting between delegates of the government and the LTTE at Geneva in February 2006, the continuing recalcitrance and belligerence of the LTTE found acknowledgement in the policy stances vis-à-vis Sri Lanka in most countries of the ‘West’.

There was, however, the sharply escalating level of Tiger violence and brinkmanship that could not be ignored. From the time of Rajapaksa’s assumption of the office of president up to the bomb attack on the Army Commander (approximately 150 days), 150 armed services personnel (in addition to about 150 civilians) had been killed. The animosity between the LTTE and the security forces had reached such fever pitch, and the pressure from the JVP and the JHU for some retaliatory measures had become so intense, that the president was compelled to initiate a series of air strikes on identified LTTE bases, especially those located in the Sampur area south of Trincomalee where there had been a LTTE military build-up since mid-2002 in total violation of the ceasefire agreement of that year. The more easily identifiable among such targets were, of course, the beach-side Sea Tiger installations that had all along posed an ominous threat to the government naval base at Trincomalee and served as both conduits for the smuggling of arms across the Bay of Bengal as well as nodes along the maritime link between the Tiger strongholds of the Vanni and those of the eastern lowlands.

The vulnerability of the east coast from perspectives of security was underscored by a Sea Tiger attack on 11 May 2006 on a vessel (‘MV Pearl Cruiser’) transporting about 700 security forces personnel from Trincomalee to Kankesanturai. The vessel was being escorted by a navy convoy and, in accordance with stipulations of the ceasefire agreement, flying the SLMM flag to indicate the presence of Norwegian monitoring officers on board. The attack was successfully repulsed with some losses of men and gun-boats on both sides but with no damage to the troop carrier. It signified, however, a perceptible shift of emphasis by the Tiger leadership towards a display of its maritime power in disregard of whatever response the SLMM and the government of Norway might make in its aftermath. The ‘international community’ (represented, on this occasion not only by the US and the EU but also by the UN General Secretary Kofi Annan) was quick to condemn the attack, especially the endangerment of the lives of SLMM monitors. More importantly, there was a rebuke of the LTTE by Ulf Henricsson, the Head of the monitoring mission, along with his determination that the LTTE’s ‘maritime rights’ off Sri Lanka’s east coast were not unrestricted.

The Tiger response to these strictures reflected, more than all else, the crude arrogance which it had begun to display this time. S P Thamilchelvam, the chief of the LTTE Political Wing, warned the SLMM that members of the monitoring team should avoid being used by the Sri Lanka Navy as ‘human shields’ and should refrain from boarding Sri Lanka navy vessels without prior sanction of the Vanni head-office. He proclaimed that the sovereign rights of the LTTE extend not only over specific stretches of territory but also over the adjacent seas and the air-space. Soosai, the Sea Tiger leader, proceeded further with seemingly inebriated bravado declaring that the LTTE, having sacrificed more that 1,200 Sea Tiger lives in innumerable confrontations with the navies of Sri Lanka and India, and having at its command a large naval fleet, has established control over "…vast stretches of sea off the north-east of the island", where its operations do not require prior permission from Oslo.

As if to demonstrate the veracity of this claim the Sea Tigers hijacked a Jordanian-registered cargo vessel (‘MV Farah 3’) off the coast of Mullaitivu, abducted its 25-member crew, and plundered the 14,000 mt of rice it had been conveying from India to South Africa. The crew was later released. The ship was dismantled off-shore and its parts taken for use as scrap. ‘Salam International Transport and Trading Company’, the owner of the ship, was indemnified by its insurance firm about a year later. The Sea Tigers thus got off committing a major act of piracy evoking hardly any external reaction other than the formal withdrawal of the SLMM from its maritime duties.

The formation of "people’s militias" which were made to appear as grass-roots organisations consisting of volunteers was one form of preparation for war pursued by the LTTE during this period. Several such outfits had been established in 2005-06 in the Vanni. On 30 June 2006 there was a widely publicised ‘passing-out parade’ conducted at the premises of Sri Senbaga Mah?vidy?laya (‘high-school’) for 6,000 persons drawn allegedly from the peasantry of the Muttur-Ichchilampattu area who had completed their training under the ‘Civilian Volunteer Force’ programme of the LTTE.

In the months that followed, the LTTE, while persisting with the strategy of sporadic acts of violence such as ‘pistol-gang’ killings, suicide-bomber operations, ambushes and claymore-mine explosions in many parts of the island, also launched two major military offensives — one in the Mahaveli delta, south of Trincomalee (Muttur-Mavil Aru area) and the other in the northern peninsula concentrated along the ‘Forward Defence Lines’ between the ‘cleared’ and ‘uncleared’ areas, especially the Muhamalai entry/exit point between the LTTE-controlled Vanni and the government-controlled Jaffna peninsula. These may be sketched out as follows.

Muttur-Mavil Aru Battles

On 20 July 2006 the LTTE closed the anicuit located on Mavil Aru (one of the larger distributaries of the Mahaveli river), thus depriving irrigation water to nearly 30,000 acres of downstream paddy land. This was, indeed, a classic ‘riparian gambit’ — a challenge for a showdown for control over the entire Mahaveli delta, based on the belief of the LTTE leadership that the recovery from the ‘Karuna’ and ‘Tsunami’ setbacks was adequate by this time for its fighting cadres to achieve the twin objectives of evicting not only the security forces of the government but also the Muslim inhabitants from this area. Further, its capture would mean a vast enrichment of the LTTE granary and would also provide the Tiger forces supremacy over the entire coastal area south of the Trincomalee Bay and over a corridor of access between their domain in Vanni and the localities they hold in Batticaloa and Ampara districts.

The LTTE challenge had obviously to be met with a concerted response the ceasefire agreement notwithstanding, if not for holding on to an area the loss of which could have far-reaching repercussions from strategic perspectives, at least for performing the government obligation of defending an innocent farm population. The military counteroffensive, codenamed ‘Operation Watershed’, launched by the security forces on 26 July with the objective of reopening the anicuit and flushing out the LTTE cadres from that locality entailed fierce fighting that lasted about a fortnight and ended with the eviction (‘tactical withdrawal’, according to Thamilchelvam) of the LTTE from the area. Following a tedious process of re-settlement of the civilians displaced by the Muttur-Mavil Aru battle (tedious, mainly because the displaced civilian population was constantly terrorised by the Tigers), and amidst conflicting claims on battle-field victories, defeats and atrocities, the government, in early September 2006, arranged an escorted tour of this entire area for a group of local and foreign journalists, thus dispelling lingering doubts on the final outcome of the confrontations.

Among the diversionary tactics adopted by the Tigers while the Muttur-Mavil Aru battle was in progress was a claymore-mine attack on a military convoy which killed 18 soldiers, and an artillery attack on the government naval base in the Trincomalee harbour killing five sailors. An attempt by a Sea Tiger flotilla to destroy a troop-ship carrying some 850 military personnel on its journey from the northern port of Kankesanthurai to Trincomalee attempted on 1 August was successfully thwarted. In the aftermath of the Muttur-Mavil Aru defeats, the LTTE carried out several sporadic acts of terrorism in Colombo. These included the assassination of Ketheeshwaran Loganathan [scion of a leading Sri Lankan Tamil family, a former member of the EPRLF who had left that group in 1994 at the age of 41, and, in later life, as an active exponent of peace in Sri Lanka, had worked as a Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (a research-focused NGO) and was serving in the post of Deputy Secretary of the government ‘Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process’ (SCOPP) at the time of his death] on 12 August 2006; and an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber two days later of the High Commissioner for Pakistan which succeeded in killing four men in the diplomat’s security guard.

Battles along the Northern : ‘Forward Defence Line’

The military confrontations that began in August 2006 in the Jaffna peninsula have been much longer in duration and far less conclusive in outcome than those of Muttur-Mavil Aru. There are two versions regarding what impelled the sudden escalation of confrontations in this part of the country. One of these is based mainly on evidence indicating that preparations were being made by the LTTE for a major offensive in Jaffna (launched with the objective of re-establishing its control over the peninsula). For instance, as mentioned above, the LTTE was setting up ‘people’s militias’ (Makkal Padai) given rudimentary training in the use of firearms and techniques of sabotage. It was also engaged in installing caches of weapons within the more densely populated localities of the peninsula. In addition to this evidence, a report dated 15 August 2006 released by the Norwegian Monitoring Mission stated that the LTTE initiated an offensive with mortar fire and cadre intrusions across the Forward Defence Lines (FDL) in the Muhamalai area on 10 August. According to the second version, it was the sudden intensification of aerial bombardment of the north by the Sri Lanka air force that prompted the upsurge of conformational violence in Jaffna peninsula at this time.

Although the Sri Lanka Air Force had conducted a series of air attacks on identified military targets in rebel-held territory in northern Sri Lanka from about mid-April 2006 (after the attempted assassination of the army commander, referred to earlier in this chapter), its attack on 14 August, targeted as it was at the premises of an institution named ‘Sencholai’ in Vallipuram, located on the Paranthan-Mullaitivu road, did represent a definite intensification of its onslaught by air. The bombing resulted in the killing of a large number of young persons (estimated at 51), mostly women. According to the response of the LTTE leadership to this tragic event, the victims were "school-girls undergoing training in First-Aid". Probably because "training in First-Aid" sounded somewhat paramilitary, a slightly modified version of that response was subsequently issued by a person identifying himself as ‘Director of the Tamil Eelam Educational Board’, according to which the 51 victims (who, he said, had been selected from among orphaned school-children) were engaged in the morning session of a ten-day residential workshop on "Leadership, Self-Awareness and First Aid" at the time they lost their lives. The SLMM team that visited ‘Sencholai’ on the day after the bombing testified that they had seen the bodies of nineteen young women, killed in two localities. The report of these monitors also noted that, although "Sencholai was …a civilian location it was ideal to conduct arms training, (and hence) the monitors are unable to clearly state if (sic.) the location was purely a school or a rebel training facility".

The most intense among the confrontations in the north took place in the Muhamalai-Kilaly area. Soon after the signing of the Government-LTTE ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ in February 2002, the ‘A9 Highway’, providing the main overland link between Jaffna Peninsula and the rest of the island, was opened for civilian traffic, with the highway stretch traversing the LTTE-held area of the Vanni being subject to regulations by both the government as well as the LTTE at the entry/exit points at Muhamalai located at the northern border of that area and Omanthai at its southern border. The regulations imposed by the LTTE involved, among other things, the extraction of taxes and other levies from vehicles, passengers and goods at these entry/exit points, the daily collection from which was estimated to approximate SLR 1 million. Moreover, Muhamalai also facilitated access from the Vanni to Jaffna peninsula and, hence, a point of easy infiltration of LTTE cadres into the latter area. With escalating levels of violence in 2006, the government closed the ‘A9’, causing both a huge loss of revenue to the LTTE as well as an obstacle to its building up strength in the government-controlled northern peninsula. Following the closure of ‘A9’, Muhamalai, on account of its vulnerability to LTTE attacks, had been developed by the government as an important military base. Thus, the attack on Muhamalai and other FDL (such as those south and west of Jaffna town) in Jaffna peninsula begun on 11 August was seen as a prelude to an attempt by the LTTE to recapture the peninsula from which it had been evicted in December 1995.

The other flashpoints were along the FDL south and southwest of the Jaffna city where the LTTE had established beachheads in the islands of Kayts and Mandativu. The Nagarkovil area of Thenmarachchi (coastal sandbar on the eastern periphery of the peninsula) also became the scene of fierce military resistance of Tiger infiltration towards Point Pedro and other towns along the peninsula’s northern coast. In the Muhamalai-Kilaly area, after some initial success in halting the intrusion, the government troops are reported to have ventured out on 10 September in an ill-planned counteroffensive intended to destroy the staging posts from which the LTTE attacks were being launched. While engaged in this attempt, they were entrapped in a ferocious guerrilla onslaught in the course of which many soldiers (28, according to an estimate in South Asia Intelligence Review of 28 October 2006) lost their lives. Thereafter, with replenishments of men and arms, the security forces did manage to hold the Tigers at bay along all FDL of the Jaffna peninsula in a long drawn-out stalemate featured by fluctuating fortunes on both sides. In the more recent past, there has been a shift of confrontational gravity to the FDL localities in the hinterland of Mannar.

LTTE Air Attacks

One of the most widely publicised LTTE military offensives of this period took the form of two low-flying aircrafts — Czech-manufactured Ziln 143 single-engined trainers — proceeding south from a jungle hideout in the northern plains, dropping 3 bombs on Sri Lanka’s principal air-force base at Katunayake at approximately 1.00 a.m. on Monday, 26 March 2006, and returning unharmed to its base an hour later. Two of the bombs exploded, killing three airmen and injuring about 15 others of the engineering section of the airbase. According to post-attack official reports, the Israel-built Kfirs and the Ukranian Mig 27s (constituting the main fighter squadrons of the air-force) on which the bombing raid is believed to have been targeted escaped damage.

Undeterred by this, however, the LTTE persisted in demonstrating its air strike capability in supporting a ground attack launched about seven months later on the second largest airbase in the country located at the southern periphery of Anuradhapura. It began at about 3.00 a.m. on 22 October 2007 with a group of LTTE cadres infiltrating the airbase. The group, carrying assault weaponry, soon brought under its control certain installations (including several gun emplacements) within the base, caused damage to aircraft and equipment, and, until about dawn, held on to a large part of the base killing several air force personnel and driving the others into defensive positions. Following the initial success of this commando-style raid, two low-flying light aircraft belonging to the LTTE arrived at the scene, dropped several bombs and returned to their base in the ‘Vanni’. Meanwhile, the air force incurred an additional loss in the form of one of its transport helicopters crashing at a spot about 13 km north of the airbase, the reasons for which are yet to be unravelled. The counterattack by the security forces, led evidently by soldiers of the Gajaba Regiment of the Sri Lanka Army, began in earnest soon after sunrise and re-established control of the airbase by mid-morning. The death-toll of this battle according to government sources was 21 Tigers (all participants in the raid) and 13 persons attached to the air force. LTTE statements refer to 21 of its cadres ‘missing in action’.

Turn of the Tide: LTTE Losses

Following the eviction of the Tigers from the Muttur-Mavil Aru area, the security forces maintained the momentum of victory to advance towards the coastal lowlands of Batticaloa District which, by November 2006, had emerged as the most powerful Tiger domain in the east. The principal objective of this operation was the rescue of the civilian population entrapped (as recounted by escapees to the government-controlled areas) under the harshly repressive LTTE rule since April 2004 when the ‘Karuna faction’ withdrew from the area. At the commencement of the military campaign here, its planners believed that the army will encounter resistance from about 3,000 well-armed Tiger cadres.

By late March 2007 the LTTE base at Vakarai had been destroyed, and the SL Army had established its control in the entire area adjacent to the Uppar Lagoon, launched soon thereafter a programme of resettlement of the displaced civilians. Almost simultaneously, the Tigers suffered another major defeat when Kokkadacholai (located a few miles south of Batticaloa town, and one of their foremost command centres in the east) was overrun by the army which, in the process, also recovered a large haul of weapons. Despite continuing attrition by the Tigers — the suicide attack on the army camp at Chenkaladi, north of Batticaloa on 27 March, causing the death of about 20 soldiers was probably the most destructive among such attacks — by early April, the LTTE hold over the coastal areas of Batticaloa had been shattered, and the surviving Tiger cadres driven to the interior of the district. Meanwhile, in the face of heavy losses in encounters with the police ‘Special Task Force’ in the Ampara littoral, LTTE cadres operating in that area also withdrew to the interior of Batticaloa. Here, despite the enhanced threat from hit-and-run attacks by those of the Karuna faction, the Vanni leadership probably believed that, especially in the rugged terrain surrounding the Thoppigala crag, developed over many years as a supposedly impregnable fortress, their cadres would find sanctuary from which they could regroup to launch a massive counterattack. Such a turn of fortunes failed to materialise, and, by mid-July 2007, the security forces had effective control over the entire Batticaloa and Ampara districts.

Losses of almost unprecedented magnitude were suffered by the LTTE in the encounters in the Eastern Province. According to SL Army estimates, since the commencement of the ‘Mavil Aru blockade’ of July 2006 up to the fall of Thoppigala almost an year later, the LTTE losses included 718 confirmed battle-field deaths, about 700 who surrendered to the army, and several hundreds seriously wounded. In addition, there had also been many LTTE recruits from the Batticaloa area who had simply abandoned arms and returned to civilian life.

These ‘terrestrial’ setbacks of the LTTE were paralleled by equally severe ‘maritime’ losses. A rough impression of their scale is conveyed by the fact that, since January 2006, the Sri Lanka navy had destroyed and/or intercepted nine transoceanic arms shipments of the LTTE, in addition to many smaller vessels engaged in transporting contraband across the Palk Strait which, despite strengthened preventive measures, has continued to remain one the more porous international frontiers of South Asia. The largest, by far, in the category of maritime losses was reported on 11 September 2007 when the SL Navy apprehended and destroyed three cargo vessels carrying arms and explosives for the LTTE in a mid-ocean battle about 600 nautical miles off the east coast of Sri Lanka. On 8 October yet another vessel, conveying a large consignment of military hardware to the LTTE was set ablaze and sunk in the same area by the navy.

Throughout this period of intense military activity in the ‘East’, elsewhere in the country the undeclared war between the security forces and the LTTE took various forms. The Forward Defence Lines (FDL) of the government-controlled areas in Jaffna peninsula were the venues of persistent but low intensity confrontations mainly in the form of either artillery bombardment from bases on both sides of the ‘frontier’ and clashes engendered by the occasional LTTE attempts by LTTE to cross the ‘frontier’ and enter the peninsula. In the coastal areas of Mannar District and in localities adjacent to the FDL in Vavuniya District, army killings of suspected insurgents, on the one hand, and LTTE claymore-mine attacks and ambushes of army patrols, on the other, occurred in almost routine fashion. The LTTE also maintained its strategy of bombing civilian targets in the ‘South’ more or less at the same tempo as in earlier times. Among these, several bombs detonated inside omnibuses (at Nittambuwa in the Western Province on 5 January 2007, at Godagama in the Southern Province on the following day, in Ampara on 2 April, and in Vavuniya town on 6 April) and caused, in aggregate, death and injury to about 80 persons. Potentially more destructive Tiger attacks on civilian targets appear to have been thwarted due to the detection at highway checkpoints of thousands of kilograms of explosives being transported from the LTTE-held areas in the Vanni towards Greater Colombo. To the LTTE what continued to be the most ominous challenge were the frequent air attacks on targets identified by the air force as military installations in the Vanni.

The damage and destruction inflicted by the LTTE on Sri Lanka through military offensives, diversionary tactics and terror attacks, though not inconsequential, have also not curtailed the capacity of the armed forces of the government to defend the country. Unlike over certain spells in the past, the security forces are being provided with inspiring leadership. A steady supply of weapons and equipment is being maintained. The morale is reported to be high. In contrast, it would be well neigh impossible for the LTTE to recover from the setbacks it has suffered since mid-2006. The proscriptions of the LTTE (and even some of its front organisations) in almost all the countries where there are sizeable expatriate Sri Lanka Tamil populations, the greater vigilance over its illegal arms transaction in at least some of the countries where there are clandestine arms markets, the strengthened Indo-Lankan collaboration in coastal surveillance and exchanges of security information, and the substantially increased operational capacity of the Sri Lanka navy (repeated interceptions of arms shipments), have converged to make it more difficult than ever before for the LTTE to engage in bulk procurement of arms and ammunition to replenish its arsenal. The replacement of the personnel losses is probably even more problematic. The densely populated coastal lowlands of the east where there is a large and impoverished Tamil population are no longer the brim-full reservoir of young conscripts to the Tiger cadres; and the forest-clad Vanni which has remained under the LTTE jackboot has hardly ever been a significant source of fresh recruits.

From the viewpoint of morale what probably constituted the most devastating blow administered on the LTTE occurred on Friday, 2 November 2007, shortly after 6.00 a.m., when Kfir and Mig fighter jets of the Sri Lanka Air Force bombed a target in a forested locality at Thiruvai Aru south of the township of Kilinochchi. According to information released by the Tiger high-command, six of its cadres including S P Thamilchelvam, Head of the LTTE ‘Political Wing’, were killed by the bombing. In the more recent past there have been reports of a bombardment by the Air Force in the north which is believed to have caused serious injury to the Tiger leader Prabhakaran.

(G.H. Peiris Professor Emirates in University of Peradeniya, Kandy , Sri Lanka)

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