Colombo’s Susceptibilities

"The LTTE strongly held Nachchakuda with the construction of this massive earth bund giving depth to Pooneryn, the last township left with the LTTE on the Western coast. With the loss of Nachchakuda the LTTE will have to resort to the Eastern coast for their logistics supplies."

by Ajit Kumar Singh

(November 03, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) A Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) propeller-drive two-seater light aircraft dropped two bombs targeting the Kelanitissa Power Station in Capital Colombo in the night of October 28, 2008. One employee at the Power Station died after the attack, possibly as a result of shock. Earlier, on its route to Colombo, the same aircraft had dropped three bombs on the Mannar Army Headquarters in Thalladi, injuring three soldiers. Though the explosion at Thalladi caused insignificant damage to the Army Headquarters, the blast at the Kelanitissa Power Station, a vital installation that supplies power to the entire Colombo city, did cause damage – though minimal - to the FIAT (GT7) Gas Turbine Power Generator and Combined Cycle Power Plant.

Soon thereafter, asserting that there would be no obstacle to producing power and supplying electricity in the future, Power and Energy Minister W. D. John Seneviratne stated, "The GT7 machine was used as a spare machine which can produce 110 MW. This machine had been used when there is a necessity or requirement. This machine can be repaired in Sri Lanka and it will take for six months. Since it is a spare machine used on requirement, the CEB will purchase a new machine in the near future." Power and Energy Minister (non-Cabinet), Mahindananda Aluthgamage, added further that some 530 mega watts (MW) of electricity was produced at the Kelanitissa Power Plant and the GT7 was producing only 110 MWs.

Media reports, however, suggest that the damage may prevent the Ceylon Electricity Board from generating the necessary power according to their scheduled requirements for at least three months, until the damaged equipment is repaired, and the daily loss incurred could reach SLR 24 million. Notwithstanding the fact, Reports indicated that the damage caused to the Power Station would lead to a severe deficit in the country’s electricity supply. Quoting unnamed Kelanitissa workers, the reports suggested that, while the GT7 generated 110 MWs the Combined Cycle Power Plant generated 165 MWs; the severe damage caused to the Combined Cycle Power Plant would deny the country the capacity to generate 55 MWs almost free of charge. This does not augur well for a country which, according to an October 15, 2008, report, is shouldering an increased defence budget to continue the fight against terrorism. According to sources, the Government has spent SLR 6,840 per minute in the war during over the past months and an increase of SLR 11,160, to reach SLR 18,000, was anticipated towards the end of October.

The more worrisome aspect of the attack, however, is the Sri Lanka Air Force’s (SLAF’s) failure to shoot down a single LTTE aircraft despite timely detection by the 2D radar installed by the Government of India at the SLAF base at Vavuniya and a Chinese 3D radar station located in the Western Province. Despite the fact that the 2D radar gave the direction and distance of the target and the Chinese radar even defined its altitude, interceptors failed to locate and neutralise the slow-moving LTTE aircraft. As one defence analyst noted, "The aircraft would have travelled at least 600 kilometres both ways and remained in the air space for at least 80 minutes. It is a mystery as to how and why the military failed to bring it down. It is a major security lapse at several levels." The main opposition United National Party Member of Parliament, Dayasiri Jayasekara, addressing the media on October 30, 2008, observed that the LTTE has managed to infiltrate the air-defence system for the seventh instance and attacked Colombo, adding, "It is the Government who identified these primitive flying machines and claimed to have destroyed the airfields in several locations. Yesterday these so-called primitive flying machines were up in the sky for almost two hours but the air-defence system was unable to find any of it (sic)."

Significantly, a heat-seeking missile fired by an SLAF interceptor had brought down one of the two LTTE aircraft returning to their base after attacking the Vavuniya Air Base on September 9, 2008. Although the LTTE had denied the SLAF claim, a senior military official pointed out that the outfit deployed only one aircraft to carry out the latest operation, while each previous raid directed at military and economic targets had involved two aircraft. Military sources had claimed that the LTTE had three two-seater Czech-made Zlin-143 aircraft fitted with homemade bombing equipment.

However primitive the LTTE’s air power may be, it is evident that Government installations and economic targets remain vulnerable to this nascent air capacity, despite the SLAF’s continued onslaught targeting identified air strips and bases deep inside the Tiger heartland.

That said, however, it must be evident that this ‘adventurous’ act of terror will have little impact on the LTTE’s continuous decline on the war front in the North. The LTTE has always struck in the Sinhala heartland whenever it has been under extraordinary pressure on the war front, and reports suggest that at least 10 LTTE suicide cadres are presently in Colombo city, waiting to hit strategic targets when ordered by their leaders. Media reports also claimed that 30 LTTE intelligence cadres had entered Colombo city to gather tactical and strategic information for their next – and inevitable – act of terror.

The Tigers have, so far, carried out eight air raids targeting Government installations since March 26, 2007. When the LTTE carried out its first successful aerial attack in Colombo, analysts had claimed that the air attack by the rebels would open a ‘new dimension’ in the Island nation’s decades-long ethnic conflict, and there was disproportionate agitation in the ‘international community’ about the new LTTE ‘Air Force’.

Instead, Government troops have continued to clear the ‘un-cleared’ areas (area not under Government control) and are now knocking at the doors of the Tiger’s Headquarters in Kilinochchi. The military captured Nachchakuda, the last stronghold of the LTTE on the Western coast short of Pooneryn, where the LTTE has stationed its artillery, by the evening of October 30, 2008. "With the capture of Nachchakuda the LTTE is left with only Pooneryn on the Western coast as the rest of the area between Nachchakuda and Pooneryn is covered with jungle patches," commander of ‘Task Force I’, the 58th Division, Brigadier Shavendra Silva disclosed. The LTTE had suffered two consecutive blows within 24-hours on the western edge of the Kilinochchi District as they lost two strategically important villages, Jayapuram and Nachchakuda, he added. The troops completely captured the 15-kilometre-long LTTE defence line in the form of a massive earth bund surrounding the Nachchakuda fishing village. Brigadier Silva asserted, further, "The LTTE strongly held Nachchakuda with the construction of this massive earth bund giving depth to Pooneryn, the last township left with the LTTE on the Western coast. With the loss of Nachchakuda the LTTE will have to resort to the Eastern coast for their logistics supplies.".

But Colombo has come under increasing pressure from another direction. As the LTTE intensified pressures on its sympathetic political formations in India, particularly in the Southern State of Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK), an alliance partner in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government at Delhi, threatened to withdraw support, unless Delhi "ensured a ceasefire" and the ‘safety of Tamil civilians’ in Sri Lanka. The campaign created surprising tensions in New Delhi and Colombo, as a fragile UPA coalition struggled to contain political tempers in the DMK. Eventually, however, after two weeks of uncertainty, the storm clouds blew away rather tamely, after India’s Minister for External Affairs and senior Congress leader, Pranab Mukherjee, met with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK party boss, M. Karunanidhi, to apprise him of "Sri Lanka’s assurance that it would not only provide humanitarian aid to distressed Tamils in the war-torn northern region of the country but also agreed to accept Indian aid", and that India could do nothing to ‘restore’ the cease fire, since it was not a party to the Norway-mediated cease fire in the first place.

This subdued resolution of the crisis in India notwithstanding, it was clear that Colombo was rattled. Pressure was evidently compounded by the LTTE’s media campaign claiming heavy civilian casualties in the war in the North, which had raised international concerns, and provoked India;s National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan to summon, on October 6, Sri Lanka's Deputy High Commissioner in India to convey New Delhi's "grave concern and unhappiness at the growing casualties of unarmed Tamil civilians as a result of the military action."

In response, a statement revealed, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse assured Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a telephonic conversation on October 18, 2008, that "Security forces are under strict instructions to avoid causing any civilian casualties during this operation."

Nevertheless, the pressure appears to have pushed Colombo into a corner, and into committing a decisive gaffe in suspending the release of casualty figures on the fighting in the North of the country in an obvious effort to suppress the magnitude of the conflict and fatalities. The Government’s explanation, articulated by the Director General of the Media Centre for National Security, Laxman Hulugalle, speaking on October 24, was that this intended to avoid ‘conflicting figures’ on casualties. Hulugalle argued, "Casualty figures varied depending on the source. I accept that they are all Government sources but they do not always have the same figures. This can be damaging when quoted by the media. In a war situation like the one we are in at the moment, it is important to be selective about what can be revealed. In a battle it is important to concentrate on the territory we gained rather than the amount of men we lose." The reason for this decision was the contradictory figures relating to military casualties during clashes in Kilonochchi, which started on October 18, 2008. According to a Defence Ministry release on October 20, 33 soldiers had been killed in the conflict. Other Government agencies denied the high Army casualty figure.

Colombo’s decision to suppress information flows from the war front (there has been little independent media corroboration since the escalation of violence in the North) chokes off virtually the only credible source now in existence. LTTE sources have provided only very fitful data over the recent past. Clearly, given the heightened tensions and rising international concerns regarding ‘collateral damage’ the information gap will inevitably fuel the worst of rumours and apprehensions – and an intensification of international pressure, and further mobilisation of Indian Tamils and the Tamil Diaspora in favour of the LTTE. If Colombo loses the war of perceptions, its victories in the North will become increasingly tainted and more ineffective in securing the decisive resolution of the ‘Tamil problem’ in Sri Lanka.
- Sri Lanka Guardian