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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Heavy casualties as battles in north intensify

Heavy casualties as battles in north intensify

  • LTTE adopting different tactics - new skirmishes in East and alleged plans to attack Jaffna
  • Security forces launch operation from Mannar and achieve two major objectives

By Iqbal Athas

An Army armoured vehicle on patrol in Silavathurai. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

For the past eight days the Security Forces have continued a major thrust from their defended localities near the Western seaboard town of Mannar. Though it is premature to discuss details related to the aims and objectives since the offensive is ongoing, a look at the overall scenario in the North, including the Wanni, reveals a stark picture.

The military thrust northwards, along the landmass west of the Giant's Tank and the seas of the Gulf of Mannar began on Monday September 24. The troops are advancing in the direction of Viduthaltivu. It was only last week that I disclosed that the Tiger guerrilla activity in this coastal village was causing concern for the security establishment. This was after intelligence reports that the guerrillas were using hideouts in the neighbouring southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to stockpile military hardware.

They were smuggling them across the shallow Gulf of Mannar. Like all their previous offensive operations, the Security Forces have not given a name to the ongoing thrust. They have carefully avoided it to prevent creating the impression that the operations are offensive in nature and pre-planned - a move that would draw adverse comments from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) that they constituted ceasefire violations. Yet, the fact that the ceasefire since February 2002 now remains only on paper is well-known.

For over a week now, the mood in areas west of Vavuniya town has changed. From some 16 miles away, within the defended localities near Periya Thampanai, ambulances loaded with wounded soldiers whiz past towards Vavuniya with their sirens wailing. The more serious cases are air lifted in helicopters to hospitals in Anuradhapura. Some of them are moved to Colombo later.

The troops are meeting heavy resistance. But they are trying to push ahead. Direct contact with their enemy is still limited. Mines and booby traps planted on their approach route caused most of the injuries. They moved cautiously to clear them when mortar barrages from the guerrillas keep falling in rapid succession. The official count has been placed at two soldiers killed and 20 more wounded. However, senior military officials in the area whom I spoke on the telephone said the figures were much higher.

On the day when this offensive was launched (Monday September 24) troops also staged attacks on the guerrillas from many other fronts. South of the Wanni, it included the general areas of Mannar, Vavuniya and Weli Oya. In one such offensive at Tampanai, an officer of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI) has gone missing with conflicting reports about his fate. Some eye witnesses had claimed they saw him fall wounded due to mortar fire whilst others suspect he was captured. In the encounters that ensued at Tampanai, two soldiers were reported killed and 31 wounded. Attacks on guerrilla positions have also continued in Kilaly, Muhamalai and Nagerkovil areas. In Muhamalai a soldier was killed when they attacked and destroyed a guerilla bunker.

It is not immediately clear whether attacks on other guerrilla positions took place. Yesterday, Mi-24 helicopter gun ships of the Air Force were strafing several positions both north and south of the Wanni sector. On Friday Air Force jets bombed several locations in the general area of Mullaitivu. In the encounters at Kilali, according to official figures from the military two soldiers were killed and 18 wounded. Despite the string of attacks on other locations, the focus of the Security Forces, it became clear, was the thrust northwards from the general areas of Mannar.

This thrust assumes significance for a number of reasons. The recent Security Forces re-capture of Silavathurai and Arippu areas, military officials claimed, has denied them a staging area to plan attacks on the City of Colombo and suburbs. This is besides using the area as a facility to unload military hardware and medical supplies smuggled across the Gulf of Mannar. They claimed that securing the area, setting up a Police Post in Silavathurai and adopting other security measures, have provided more depth in protecting Mannar and its environs.

But a greater significance lies in securing a swathe of land north of Mannar, along the coast. Preventing guerrilla boat movements across the Gulf of Mannar, thus restricting logistics supplies is just one reason. However, a more important reason in securing a substantial stretch along the western seaboard (north of Mannar) would be the great advantage it affords the Security Forces. This is in preventing the exodus of refugees to South India - a serious cause for concern for both the Central Government in India as well as the State Government in Tamil Nadu. Hence, achieving the twin objective of blocking the induction of supplies into Sri Lanka and preventing an outflow of refugees will bolster the Government's plans to step up the military offensive against Tiger guerrillas in other areas in the Wanni and the North.

This naturally imposes considerable pressure on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Unlike in the East, where it had not dominated territory and consolidated its position, the Wanni, the focus of major military thrusts, remains different. Having taken advantage of the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002 that conferred a vast landmass for them in the Wanni, over the years the LTTE had built up a vast infrastructure.

They include their own "tax collection machinery, a police service, a judiciary, prisons, an administrative structure" and other measures that have prompted the guerrillas to say they were virtually a "State in waiting." Hence, the battles in the Wanni are so different from those in the East. They are not battles to keep or lose territory but to defend a successful structure they have efficiently built up during more than five years of the ceasefire. This is why they have offered fierce resistance to prevent any incursion by the Security Forces.

This is why slowly but surely some of the ground realities are changing, at least for the Tiger guerrillas. Conversely they have become a puzzle for the State intelligence agencies. The biggest question for them is whether the guerrillas would soon cross the threshold from maintaining a stricter defensive posture to assume an offensive role. Though it may not assume conventional proportions, there are increasing signs the guerrillas may be moving in this direction.

One is a move to destabilise the Government-controlled Jaffna peninsula. Intelligence sources say there has been a marked increase in the infiltration of cadres into the peninsula through Thanankilappu and Ariyalai, across the Kalmunai Point that is separated by the Kilali lagoon. The guerrillas, they say, have been continuously monitoring Naval movements in the area. The guerrillas have also been positioning artillery at Kalmunai Point and neighbouring Nagathevanthurai that lay in the tongue-shaped stretch of land south of the peninsula.

There has also been infiltration of guerrilla cadres to the outlying islands. "Even if the build-up is not to stage a conventional style attack, which is difficult for them, the plans may be to trigger off improvised explosive devices and other attacks to cause instability," warns an intelligence source familiar with guerrilla plans in the North. He says this is mainly to distract the Security Forces whose focus now remains the North, particularly the Wanni region.

Coupled together with reports that the guerrillas are planning attacks on both economic and military targets in areas outside the North and East, the threat in the peninsula has to be viewed seriously, says the source. Here again, the idea is to distract the attention of the Security Forces by creating situations where they will have to deploy elsewhere. Contrary to claims that the guerrillas have lost their capability to carry out such attacks, the same source adds, "it only takes one or two of them (the guerrillas) to trigger off some thing." We will need large numbers to keep them on the hop. That means we have to continue at a very high level of alert all the time, he points out.

In the light of this, there are other significant developments too. Though still not on a highly worrying scale, small numbers of guerrillas have become active in all three districts of the East - Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. In Trincomalee there have been reports of guerrilla intelligence cadres moving around in the Trincomalee town and Tampalagamuwa areas. They are also said to be active in Kumburupiddy, Kandalkadu and Kantale where groups had infiltrated civilian settlements.

For the first time since the re-capture of Toppigala in July this year, small groups of guerrillas had also returned to the Batticaloa district. They were reported to be moving around in Kokkadicholai and Vavunativu. Since troops moved into Toppigala, the guerrillas stepped up increased intelligence activity in Ampara. Guerrilla cadres have also had a string of skirmishes with commandos of the Police Special Task Force (STF).

Besides the very logical move of again distracting the attention of the Security Forces to the East, the guerrilla activity there, though small but growing, portends other serious problems. Main among them is a gradual build-up by the guerrillas, though under pressure in the Wanni, to destabilise the area. This is to achieve the twin objective of stalling the Government's ambitious development programme for the East as well as make it difficult for the conduct of local, and thereafter, the Provincial Council elections in the East.

The onerous task of holding Batticaloa, the pivotal district, has thus fallen on the Special Task Force. This is after Security Forces deployed in that area were gradually re-deployed for operations in the North. In the past weeks, even those who had retired from the STF have been re-called and offered placements in the district with attractive incentives. This is whilst the security establishment has set in motion an unpublicised move to gradually remove armed paramilitary groups from operating in the area.

In this backdrop, one of the key players, Karuna alias Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan has left Sri Lanka. During his stay of over an year, he not only enjoyed heavy protection but also visited camps of his cadres in the East. He also visited the political offices of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), his political party that has several offices in the East. Karuna's group was accused of a number of killings, kidnappings and abductions. Some of them were political whilst others were reportedly for extortion of vast amounts of money.

The move to rid the east of armed groups will be no easy task for the Government since the arms they carried were enormous in number. Thus, even if the paramilitary cadres that backed the Government would no longer be active, a process that will be largely time consuming, a bigger question would be how their arms are to be collected. If past experience is anything to go by, some of them may be sold to the underworld of criminals for a price - a further sophistication of the underworld modus operandi which has changed long years before from clubs and iron rods.

The military thrust near Mannar came just one day ahead of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's address to the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He spoke on Tuesday afternoon (September 25). In a speech that clearly endorsed the view of his brother and Defence Secretary, retired Lieut. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, he said, "terrorism any where is terrorism. Sri Lanka has taken an upfront position in the global community's efforts to deal with terrorism….."

He said, "Solutions sought for conflicts in various countries, must be indigenous. Otherwise, even if the international community is appeased, people in countries saddled with conflicts will not be satisfied. This will be a blow to democracy." Barely two weeks earlier, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa had declared that the Tiger guerrillas have to be defeated "100 per cent" for peace to return.

Also a day ahead of President Rajapaksa's speech to the UN, the LTTE issued a lengthy statement to set out its position vis-à-vis a number of issues. The statement said it was clear from the remarks made by Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, that the Government intends to intensify the war in the North. Secondly, it said, that the All-Party Representative Committee, which is formulating political proposals to end the ethnic conflict, was a "facade to fool the international community." Thus, the LTTE summed up its stance.

A rejoinder on what is to follow came again yesterday. That was also from Lt. Col. (retd.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary. He declared that the date for the end of the separatist war was not far off. The occasion was a ceremony at the Headquarters of the Sinha Regiment at Ambepussa where troops were remembering their dead colleagues. Their next of kin of those who died were present to hear the Defence Secretary make the pledge. That can only mean more fighting with Tiger guerrillas is a certainty in the coming weeks.

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