Eelam War IV: Trinco in danger
- LTTE strategy now becomes clear despite denials
by successive governments
- Huge casualty tolls in Mavil Aru and Mutur
This week, both Government troops and the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) saw the dawn of Eelam War IV. However,
despite its advent, there is still a bizarre paradox. They both
continue to re-iterate their commitment to the Norwegian-brokered
Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) of February 2002.
The strategic north-eastern port city of Trincomalee
was the launching pad for the second time. The outbreak of Eelam
War III on April 29, 1995 came after the guerrilla attack on the
Trincomalee Port. The new phase began in the same area. As a diversionary
tactic, guerrillas directed fire at security forces positions in
the North. Concerns heightened that violence would spread to the
South too. This is after the discovery by Karandeniya Police, following
a tip off, of lethal military items concealed in the false bottom
of a lorry, at a checkpoint in Bentota. There were fears more would
have gone undetected.
|Navy sailors at an intersection of the Mutur
town. Bodies of Tiger guerrillas, killed in the fighting, lay
strewn on the roadside.
These developments have confined the ceasefire
to a set of words on paper. The same with the Scandinavian monitors
tasked to supervise it. They complain there are no security guarantees
and they are unable to do their job. Even in the unlikely event
of Norway's Special Envoy to the peace process, Jon Hanssen-Bauer,
who arrived in Colombo on Friday, securing such guarantees, there
are other critical issues.
Three out of five truce monitoring countries -
Finland (11), Denmark (11) and Sweden (15) - are pulling out. Thus
SLMM members would dwindle down from 58 to 21 representing only
Norway (16) and Iceland (5). Replacing them from other countries
would require the concurrence of both sides. That now becomes a
secondary issue. The first would be a means to ensure a halt to
war and a return to ceasefire. Only then could there be any monitoring.
The turning point appears to be Wednesday (July
26) when President Mahinda Rajapaksa chaired a meeting of the National
Security Council. Matters of serious concern to national security
interests came up for discussion. Among them: reports that the LTTE
was constructing a second airstrip northeast of Puthukudiyrippu
in the LTTE-dominated Wanni. Another was the LTTE blockade of water
from Mavil Aru irrigation reservoir (located within the Trincomalee
district) to paddy fields and other farmland in villages in Government-controlled
areas north of Batticaloa.
As revealed in The Sunday Times (Situation Report)
last week the Air Force began a four-day air campaign from Wednesday
evening. It bombed rebel positions near the Mavil Aru anicut area
and near the Verugal River - the boundary between Trincomalee and
Batticaloa districts. The next day (Thursday) the Air Force continued
the air raids on Sea Tiger bases further east towards the coast
in the general area of Kathiraveli.
During this air campaign Israeli built Kfir jets
of the Air Force also bombed the LTTE's main base at Karadiyanaru,
23 kilometres west of Batticaloa. More than 40 guerrilla cadres
were reported killed in this attack on Saturday (July 28). It also
left the Batticaloa military wing leader Banu injured though intercepts
showed he was active on the LTTE radio network this week.
It is in this backdrop that some 2,000 troops
launched a military offensive on Sunday (July 30) to gain control
of the Mavil Aru anicut. Supported by the Army's elite commandos,
the troops were made up of the 7th battalion of the Sri Lanka Light
Infantry, 8th battalion of the Gemunu Watch, 2nd battalion of the
Sri Lanka National Guard, 8th battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry
and 10th battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry. They made a
two pronged pincer move. The operation continues.
There was one distinct disadvantage to the troops.
Public pronouncements by politicians and some officials that the
military would seize the anicut and restore badly needed water to
some 30,000 acres of paddy, ready for harvest, had denied to them
the element of surprise. They said that would also obviate the need
for drinking water being supplied to villagers in the area in bowsers.
Tiger guerrillas seized this information to heavily mine the area,
plan moves to resist troop advance and place snipers at strategic
By Monday, troops moved despite the heavy resistance
offered by Tiger guerrillas. Air Force Kfir jets pounded LTTE bases
on the border between Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts. They
included the "Lima Seven," "Four Eight" bases
(located south of the Mavil Aru anicut). They also hit the "Hillman"
and "Nedaal" bases located east of it. Air Force sources
said they scored an accurate hit on the Sea Tiger base at Kathiraveli.
Reconnaisance aircraft had reported later that a fire in a main
building lasted for hours after the bombing. It also led to secondary
explosions of ammunition and other ordnance.
Two Commando officers and eight soldiers were
killed. Among them were seven commandos. Forty five soldiers were
injured. The commandos played a daredevil role to clear the way
for the advancing troops. On Monday night 16 more soldiers, part
of re-inforcements proceeding to the area, were killed when the
guerrillas exploded a claymore mine near Kantalai. Two soldiers
When the military offensive was under way, the
guerrillas resorted to more diversionary tactics. Hours before dawn
on Monday, from Elephant Pass they fired artillery at troop positions
in Nagerkovil, a part of the defended localities straddling the
Army's entry-exit point at Muhamalai. This is the gateway to the
LTTE-dominated Wanni from the Jaffna peninsula. It lasted for over
half an hour in the morning. Later, in the evening the same routine
was repeated. Two soldiers were injured.
The next day (Tuesday) the LTTE had embarked on
a major diversion. Before it began, the guerrillas fired artillery
and mortars at security forces detachments in Mannar. Later in the
afternoon, a flotilla of Sea Tiger boats, said to be around ten,
set out from Sudaikuda to attack "Jetliner," the new passenger
ferry that was bringing in 854 armed forces personnel from Kankesanthurai
to Trincomalee. Sudaikuda is located near Sampur, a land mass divided
only by the deep seas of the harbour from the Eastern Naval Area
Headquarters at the Dockyard. Tiger guerrillas have been dominating
this area since the Army pulled out long before the ceasefire. The
troops were going on leave. The new vessel has been chartered by
the Navy from a state agency in Indonesia. This was after the charter
contract for Pearl Cruise II, that escaped a Sea Tiger attack on
May 11, was cancelled thereafter by the Navy.
The Navy's Small Boat and the Fast Attack Craft
(FAC) Squadrons went into action. They came under 122 mm artillery
and 81 mm mortar fire. They returned fire and three Sea Tiger boats
were destroyed. As the gun battles went on, Navy crew who were manning
"Jetliner," that was near the harbour mouth, hurriedly
moved the passenger ferry into the Dockyard area. The troops disembarked
Thus a second attempt by the guerrillas to drown
a Navy passenger ferry with a large complement of troops failed.
When the battles raged outside the harbour, a second flotilla of
Sea Tiger boats were heading towards Trincomalee from a base at
Mullaitivu. They were intercepted by Navy FACs. Gun battles ensued
off the shores of Alampil. Helicopter gun ships of the Air Force
joined in. The boats later retreated. At least two more Sea Tiger
boats were destroyed. One sailor was killed and two were wounded.
Failing to hit the passenger ferry, the guerrillas
directed a barrage of artillery and mortar fire to the Dockyard,
home for the Eastern Naval Area Headquarters. It also came from
Sudaikuda. When it ended, six sailors were killed and 18 were wounded.
There were varied claims about the casualty count of guerrillas.
The Navy said around 150 guerrillas were killed. However, other
sources said 35 were killed and 130 wounded in the fighting in and
around Mutur. Independent verification of guerrilla casualties is
Casualty figures given in pro-LTTE websites were
lower (than those obtained from radio intercepts) and the details
were highly exaggerated. The pro-LTTE Tamilnet website said "Jetliner"
had moved to international waters and Indian assistance was being
sought. Another account spoke about the bodies of 40 soldiers in
their custody being handed over to the International Committee of
the Red Cross (ICRC). The accounts turned out to be untrue. The
ICRC said no such request has been made.
With a second attempt to attack a passenger ferry
coming a cropper, the LTTE shifted its battle to the adjoining area.
Soon after midnight that signalled the dawn of Wednesday, they directed
artillery and mortar fire at the Mutur Jetty. Two policemen and
an airman were injured. Army and Navy detachments at Kaddaiparichchan,
Selvanagar and Mahindapura also came under attack. At Kaddaiparichchan,
two soldiers were killed and 20 wounded. This was to seal off any
help being rushed to Mutur.
The guerrillas infiltrated Mutur from the western
side of the town before the crack of dawn. Police and security forces
personnel on guard duty at telecommunications centre and the Bus
Depot were forced to back out due to intense fire. The Naval detachment
too was under fire together with the Mutur Jetty. By Thursday morning
Air Force Kfir jets began bombing Sampur area whilst Mi 24 helicopter
gun ships attacked Sea Tiger boats in the surrounding seas. The
guerrillas initially prevented re-inforcements from rushing in by
blocking the Jetty and the entry points on the Kantalai side.
By late Thursday afternoon intense fighting continued
in the Mutur area. Infantry companies moved in, one from the Pachchanoor
side to fight their way through. The guerrillas began to dominate
parts of Mutur throughout Thursday afternoon till Friday morning.
Another infantry company inducted the previous night fought their
way to seize control of the Mutur town. A soldier was killed in
the fighting yesterday. The guerrillas backed out but continued
to direct fire at troop positions hiding behind civilians who had
gathered at several points. Later in the day they began to take
full control. The LTTE operations in Mutur were led by Muttuselvi
The LTTE attempt to gain a contiguous stretch
of land from Sampur southwards, a move that would have crippled
the working of the Trincomalee Port, was thus thwarted. Such a move
would have had very disastrous consequences. This port is the lifeline
for some 40,000 security forces personnel and policemen deployed
in the Jaffna peninsula. It is from this port that they embark or
disembark when they go on leave from the North. Only a few hundreds
are ferried by the Air Force from Colombo to Jaffna. Military and
food supplies to the north are also moved from this port.
Hence the LTTE attacks to seize control of Mutur
and adjoining areas were a failure. But the guerrillas still won
in one aspect. They succeeded in creating a mass exodus of Muslim
civilians from Mutur. Nearly 30,000 are now in temporary shelters
in Kantale and other areas. At least 16 of them were killed in artillery
and mortar fire. The Government and the LTTE traded allegations
against each other over these attacks. The matter came up for discussion
at a special meeting of the National Security Council on Friday.
|TRINCO: How The Sunday Times reported the
Without doubt, many a major attempt by the LTTE
in the recent months has come a cropper. The latest was the attempt
on the Navy's passenger ferry and the attack to take control of
Mutur and surrounding areas.
With the exit of renegade eastern leader Karuna
(Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan), it is clear the LTTE has not been
able to effectively strengthen its military strike capabilities
in the East. This is a contributory cause for its failure although
the LTTE in an unusual move, declared its action in Mutur was a
defensive one to "protect civilians". Yesterday, the LTTE
announced it had withdrawn from the area. Indeed, it has, but against
all its wishes to remain on the ground. Their grand design failed.
However, this does not mean the LTTE would give
up. Yesterday, Army personnel at Muhamalai were tipped off about
a group of guerrillas who had asked for water from a household.
A search of the area led to a confrontation in which five guerrillas
were killed. They had in their possession a Global Positioning System
(GPS), guns, maps, mini Uzi sub machine guns among other items.
Army officials believe their incursion into the area was a prelude
to a major attack.
The pre-dawn discovery on Thursday by the Karandeniya
Police of lethal military items concealed in the false bottom of
a flat bed lorry is also causing concern for the security authorities.
The Police had been tipped off that such a lorry was heading from
Vavuniya to an estate in Elpitiya. The items were to be hidden there
until the guerrillas planned a major attack. They rushed to a check
point at Bentota. When the lorry was checked, they found concealed
inside three T-56 assault rifles, 18 grenades, a box containing
38 packages of explosives each weighing five kilogrammes, a micro
pistol, 38 claymore mines, T-56 magazines and a large quantity of
ammunition. Two persons were arrested in this regard from Vavuniya.
Police believe the discovery is linked to confessions
made by an LTTE female cadre, 27-year-old Mariyadas Anthony Suja,
who was arrested in Tissamaharama. She confessed upon her arrest
that she and a group of 12 other suicide cadres were planning an
attack on a VVIP as revealed in The Sunday Times (Situation Report
- July 23). Concerns in the security establishment have been raised
after fears that similar military items would have been smuggled
into other areas in the south by Tiger guerrillas who were planning
to unleash violence there.
It seems an irony that successive Governments
have continued to ignore warnings of the threats to the strategic
Trincomalee harbour. It was The Sunday Times (Situation Report -
August, 3 2003) that revealed the LTTE build-up surrounding the
Trincomalee Port in a report titled "TIGER TRAP FOR TRINCO
SIEGE." This and other exclusive disclosures then led to late
Lakshman Kadirgamar, former Foreign Minister, raising issue over
security concerns, both with the then United National Front (UNF)
Government and the Indian authorities in New Delhi.
This was one of the main reasons why then President
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga took over the Defence portfolio
(together with Internal Security and Mass Communication) from Prime
Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe's cabinet in November 2003. Having
done so, she told a meeting of the National Security Council on
August 17, 2004 that reports about the existence of LTTE camps in
Trincomalee district were not true. She said such reports were being
spread by those who wanted to see a resumption of war, as reported
in The Sunday Times (Situation Report - August 22, 2004). In other
words, she believed there was no such threat to the Trincomalee
In July 2004 I joined a Navy patrol in the seas
off Trincomalee. Travelling past the Sampur area, we came under
guerilla fire. In an account in The Sunday Times (Situation Report
- July 25,2004), I said:
"………Tiger guerrilla camps
deep inside, (Sampur) behind some of these bunkers (see map on this
page) posed a grave threat. Artillery (130 mm and 122 mm) were positioned
towards the harbour. In addition they believe there are 81 mm mortar
positions near the bunkers along the coastline from Sampur towards
"What does all this mean for the Navy? In
the event of a confrontation, the Tiger guerrillas can immobilize
the Trincomalee harbour in just a matter of minutes. Firing artillery
or mortars into the harbour mouth area will mean no vessel can either
enter or leave the Trincomalee Port. That will mean naval vessels
will be trapped in the Dockyard…."
It was not only The Sunday Times (Situation Report)
that repeatedly bared warnings about threats to the Trincomalee
harbour. On September 14, 2003 a front page report by me headlined
"Trinco Naval base is vulnerable," US military warns Sri
Lanka"gave details of a warning by the United States Pacific
This warning came after a high level United States
Pacific Command team examined security conditions in Sri Lanka and
handed over a report on "Assessment of the armed forces of
Sri Lanka" to the Government. The visit of the team was the
direct result of a meeting then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
had with US President George W. Bush in Washington D.C. in July
2002. This is what the PACOM report had to say on Trincomalee harbour:
"Discussion: The most important base for
the Sri Lanka Navy is without question the Trincomalee Harbour.
Currently, the LTTE control the southern portion of the Harbour.
From this area, the LTTE have effectively monitored all ship movement
in and out of the Harbour, launch suicide and artillery attacks
against the Naval Base and could destroy any vessel coming in and
out of the harbour. The SL Army is responsible for this area but
they have been unable to completely secure it.
"a. The SL Defence force must secure this land area. The vulnerable
position that currently exists could essentially level the majority
of the Sri Lanka Navy fleet. The result would be that the only re-supply
capability for the Jaffna peninsula would have to come from Colombo,
more than four times the distance to Jaffna.
"b. Currently there are designated areas
for the LTTE and areas for the Sri Lanka Defence Forces. If the
southern tip of Trincomalee Harbour has not been designated for
the LTTE, it more than likely isn't, then the Sri Lanka Government
should be massing police and military personnel in this area in
case the hostilities resume.
"Without control of this area the defence
of Trincomalee Harbour will always be a losing battle. Without Trincomalee
Harbour the ability to prosecute the war would be detrimentally
Speaking on behalf of then United National Front
(UNF) Government, then Minister G.L. Peiris denied there were LTTE
camps around the Trincomalee harbour. (The Sunday Times - Situation
Report September 14 2003). At that time, former President Kumaratunga,
who firmly believed there was a threat took over the Defence portfolio.
Once her own party was foisted in Government, she too denied the
fact. She is now in the UK whilst an entire nation is paying heavily
for the omissions and commissions of her and the successive governments.
All sides then succeeded in blaming the media and sought to intimidate
them. For many connected with the defence establishment, that is
a delightful pastime be it in the past or now. Now the truth is
staring in the face.
For President Mahinda Rajapaksa, just eight months
in office, has inherited all these problems. They were not his creations.
That no doubt stands in the way of his development plans. It is
no easy task for him. Whilst facing a fierce enemy, he has to put
right the colossal damage caused to national interest and national
security. That is an enormous task whilst coping with Eelam War