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SRI LANKA: Capture of Mullaitivu and the future of LTTE

By Col R Hariharan

(January 27, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The capture of Mullaitivu, the last big town under the control of the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in a way came about as abruptly as Kilinochchi on January 25. But 59 Division of the Sri Lanka security forces which captured Mullaitivu had to fight its way through in some of the worst terrain against well fortified defensive positions. The fall of Mullaittivu was not unexpected. In fact in my article in the Hindu last week, I had said, "With such a large force confronting them, the LTTE cadres defending Mullathivu are facing a situation that is not dissimilar to what they faced during their defence of Kilinochchi, which crumbled after the government forces broke through the perimeter defences. Mullathivu might face the same fate with the final assault going through as a walk-in into a ghost town."

Only this time around, the approaches to Mullaitivu pulled some surprises with the strong resistance east of Dharmapuram up to Viswamadu-Viswamadukulam. Security forces had reported blasting of the Kalmadukulam tank by the LTTE and flooding the Dharmapuram, Ramanathapuram, and Viswamadu areas to stall the advance f the security forces. According to the media, occupying an area of five square km this tank was the second largest in the north.

However, the LTTE cadres in defending area between Puthukkudiyiruppu and to its south and west have little chance of holding on with approximately five divisions converging on it from three directions. 55 Division advancing along Nagarkovil-Chundikulam axis in the north captured Chundikulam crossing the lagoon of the same name. It plans to link up with 59 Division in Mullaitivu which would close the last bit of free access to the sea between Mullaitivu and Chundikulam to the LTTE.

The chief of LTTE Velupillai Prabhakaran has become elusive even as a lot of hype was built up by the security forces about his presence in Mullaitivu area. As the Sri Lanka expects to rout the LTTE completely by March 2009, Prbhakaran's whereabouts become crucial after Mullaittivu's capture. The LTTE has been silent on speculations about its supreme leader, having lost its tenor due to the fading fortunes of war.

The Sri Lankan army commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka has claimed that 95 percent of the LTTE is "finished." Territorially speaking he is probably correct. But I am sure the security forces know that would not be the "real" 95 percent of the LTTE unless most of the cadres are killed or caught and the weapon inventories of the LTTE are accounted for. They also would acknowledge Prabhakaran has to exit the Sri Lanka scene for "finishing" the LTTE finally.

His continued leadership is vital for rebuilding the LTTE to survive another day. He has been the guiding spirit of the LTTE in war and peace all these years and many of the followers would not know what do without his command. More than that, he has not allowed the rise of any other leader to the stature of being his successor. As the LTTE revolves around Prabhakaran his death or apprehension could fold up the LTTE. His fate is also interlinked with the fortunes of his acolytes and fellow travellers both at home and abroad, particularly in Tamil Nadu.

Just before Mullaittivu fell, there had been widespread speculation in Sri Lanka media that he might have gone to Kerala or Tamil Nadu or even Penang State in Malaysia. All the three regions, where pockets of LTTE sympathisers exist, are not in the good books of Sri Lanka. However, at present these stories appear to be more fiction than factual.

With these stories, the Sri Lanka intelligence agencies probably hoped to demoralise the LTTE cadres defending Mullaitivu.

The LTTE cadres at the battle front are out of touch with Prabhakaran. This is not surprising as Prabhakaran normally does not join frontline battles though he keeps close touch with operations. The Tiger leader is also known to change his location frequently even in normal times. These are sensible survival precautions of a paranoid leader who has made too many enemies. And that is how he has survived. The Prabhakaran mystique is built as much on his low visibility and as the high secrecy of his location.

But where is Prabhakaran? Despite inspired stories about his departure to India, Malaysia or elsewhere, he runs the risk of being arrested in most of the 37 countries the have banned the LTTE in some form or other. Only Myanmar, Thailand and Kampuchea could become destinations of a fleeing LTTE leader. Of course, South Africa and Eritrea are touted as two other possibilities. But both are too far and travel would be too risky for the LTTE leader. The LTTE had a history of striking deals with corrupt elements of Myanmar military regime. But its socially downtrodden Tamil ethnic population has little influence and the military regime might sacrifice Prabhakran in adversity. Kampuchea where the LTTE had been buying his arms and Thailand where the LTTE has some clout with powerful Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates appear to be the only possibilities.

But own assessment is that given his doggedness built around the goal of achieving Tamil Eelam, Prabhakaran might not quit Sri Lanka to the comfort of Sri Lanka government. Tamil Nadu and Kerala coasts are the easiest to reach. Tamil Nadu in particular is an attractive destination for Prabhakaran because LTTE has built support assets there. However, it could be extremely risky also. Prabhakaran may welcome Indian coast for the limited use as a transit point before sneaking out to one of the western countries where death sentence does not exist and such leaders do get accommodated. After all Britain still has given refuge to one of the most wanted Chechen terrorist leaders. So Tamil Nadu and Kerala would do well to be on guard as Sri Lankan boats getting abandoned on India coasts have been repeatedly reported since last December.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:colhari@yahoo.com)
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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