ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 38
Columns - Situation Report

LTTE digging in for big battle in Jaffna

  • Attack on Regimental Headquarters sends alarm signals
  • President sends Basil on vital diplomatic mission as ceasefire anniversary nears

By Iqbal Athas

It happened when the National Security Council was in session in Colombo last Wednesday — the first since President Mahinda Rajapaksa returned to Sri Lanka after his three-day official visit to the Maldives.

Tiger guerrillas directed a barrage of 130 mm artillery fire at the Army's 53 Division Headquarters in Kodikamam north. It came just minutes after senior officers of the Division lit the traditional oil lamp and when refreshments were being served. The occasion was the opening of the Regimental Headquarters of the newly-established Mechanised Infantry.

It is made up of three battalions – 3rd Sri Lanka Light Infantry, 9th Sinha Regiment and 4th Gajaba. They have been picked on the basis of seniority of the battalions in the Army. It is the latest addition to this elite Division which consists of reserve elements including Commandos and the Air Mobile Brigade.

A large haul of military hardware buried by Tiger guerrillas before they beat a hasty retreat when cornered in Vakarai was unearthed by the Army this week. Cameraman A.T.M. Gunananda took this picture of soldiers recovering communication sets buried on the ground inside a partly built abandoned house.

A Lance Corporal died on the spot. The Brigade Commander of the Mechanised Infantry Division (MID), Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Nugera, a respected officer, was badly injured. He was immediately air lifted to Colombo for medical attention. Among others injured was Lt. Col. Sumith Atapattu, a battalion commander, Major Harendra Peiris, second in command of another battalion and two staff officers.

The guerrilla artillery fire from long range 130 mm mortars had come from four different directions. Of some 34 rounds fired, 17 of them had fallen in and around the conference hall of the 53 Division where the ceremonies were under way. In the resultant melee, Brigadier Srinath Rajapaksa, officiating General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 53 Division and another officer escaped narrowly. They hurriedly boarded a Russian-built BTR armoured vehicle.

The incident sent shock waves reeling down the security establishment for a number of reasons. Main among them was how the Tiger guerrillas knew that a ceremony relating to the opening of the Regimental Headquarters was being held. Enhancing this concern was the fact that the ceremony had been planned for a particular time and later put off by over an hour. Were guerrillas who had infiltrated the area giving the correct co-ordinates for those at the artillery positions, believed to be in and around LTTE-dominated areas near Pooneryn? Or, were the guerrillas using the services of elements in the security establishment, who had been paid handsomely for intelligence information? Or, was it a case of both? Top level investigations are under way.

The puzzle has deepened due to another factor. Two weeks ago, a highly-skilled Army rapid reaction motorcycle team was hot on the heels of an LTTE intelligence wing leader. At one point, they were forced to go by foot. By the time they cornered the guerrilla; he bit a cyanide phial and died on the spot. Troops found a collection of items — maps with locations of security forces positions, documents giving layout of camps and other papers. Why did the team leave their motorcycles and move by foot? They became aware that someone inside a camp had telephoned the guerrilla intelligence operative and warned him that a motorcycle team was out to get him. How it came about cannot be revealed.

Another important fact that emanates from last Wednesday's incident is that the guerrillas are still in possession of 130 mm long range artillery guns. Since the Army found that artillery fire into the 53 Division Headquarters came from four different directions, it is logical to assume that there are at least four guns. This is at a time when it was widely believed, following repeated official claim that air attacks had led to all guerrilla artillery guns being neutralized. During the phase of the Eelam War III, guerrillas directed 130 mm artillery from locations in Pooneryn at the Security Forces Headquarters (SFHQ) in Jaffna.

Similarly, in August, last year, the guerrillas directed regular artillery fire at the SFHQ in Palaly bringing all air movements, both civilian and military, there to a complete halt. This came as the guerrillas planned to lay siege on the Jaffna peninsula. Simultaneously, they also directed artillery fire at the Eastern Naval Area Headquarters in Trincomalee and the Air Force base there at China Bay. Repeated air raids in the north and the re-capture of Sampur led to the artillery guns going silent. This led to the belief that the guerrillas had lost their artillery capability. Now that the LTTE has used at least four artillery guns with some precision to direct attacks on the 53 Division Headquarters, it is no military secret to say that an artillery threat to the SFHQ in Jaffna still remains potent.

This is at a time when there is increasing proof of an LTTE build-up in the Jaffna peninsula. Whilst the Security Forces were focused on the East, the guerrillas were busy consolidating their positions in the North and planning for attacks. Yesterday the LTTE directed a claymore mine at a bus carrying troops killing a soldier and wounding five others in Jaffna. A civilian was also killed and another three were injured. Just a day before the artillery attack on 53 Division Headquarters, the Army recovered a large stock of C-4 explosives. The heartening aspect of this find was that information was forthcoming from the public in the area.

Major attacks

Hidden inside an abandoned house at Sivan Kovil Lane in Tirunelveli were 600 kilogrammes of C-4 explosives. Two packs, each containing 15 kilogrammes, were coupled together with one detonating mechanism. There were 30 such packs though some of the weight included the metal boxes that contained the explosives. Also, found was a mobile telephone with some coupling devices — a clear proof that the guerrillas planned to detonate them using the cell phone.

It is likely the guerrillas were planning to use these explosives to attack troop positions or movements. An Army official said he would not rule out the prospect of one or more of the packs being used against a target for greater impact. Some of the major attacks in the past years show that the guerrillas have used different quantities of explosives during major attacks. Some examples: The attack on the Central Bank on January 31, 1996 — 1000 to 1200 kilogrammes were used. The attack on the World Trade Centre (through the Hotel Galadari premises) on May 10, 1997 — some 250 kilogrammes were used. The attack on Sri Dalada Maligawa on January 25, 1998 — about 50 to 75 kilogrammes were used.

A highly-worrying aspect of the recovery of such a large quantity of explosives last week is how they were brought in. Highly-placed Army officials say these were "definitely not old leftover when guerrillas withdrew but quantities that have been smuggled in recently." Land routes to the Jaffna peninsula remain shut with the closure of the Muhamalai entry-exit point along the A-9 highway. Thus, the only means of access is through the sea/lagoon surrounding the peninsula.

This brings to question the effectiveness of Navy patrols as against the the Sea Tigers, the LTTE’s ocean-going arm, which remains largely intact. Navy patrols have made some significant detections in the Palk Straits, the thin strip of Indian Ocean that divides Sri Lanka from southern India. Yet, there appears to be enhanced activity where most instances are going undetected. Intelligence sources say large quantities of medical supplies brought from Tamil Nadu have been landed in Pooneryn, Mannar and adjoining coastal areas.

Fears that the LTTE had established new hideouts in the Southern Indian coast and are operating largely unimpeded are raising serious concerns. This week, the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard detected a consignment of explosives, steel balls and other hardware when they were about to be smuggled to northern Sri Lanka. A more disturbing find by the Indian authorities came last week.

Last Wednesday, the Indian Coast Guard intercepted an LTTE boat 20 nautical miles from the south Indian coastal town of Rameshwaram. They seized a suicide belt lined with explosives, an AK 47 assault rifle. ammunition and seven kilogrammes of a chemical that could be used in the manufacture of bombs. Three LTTE cadres and two South Indian nationals who were helping them were arrested. The find has worried security and intelligence agencies both in Colombo and New Delhi. Why is a heavily loaded explosive belt being smuggled to India and who could be the target? There is heightened attention particularly in the wake of the upcoming New Delhi summit of South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) countries in April, this year.

In the past several weeks, highly placed Army sources in Jaffna say, the LTTE has intensified preparations in the peninsula. Those over the age of 18 years were being forcibly recruited for military training. One of their military leaders, Balraj has been visiting villages in the Wanni to address civilian groups. He has decreed that every family should volunteer one able bodied member to join the LTTE military wing. Those who had undergone military training were being deployed in their defence lines in Muhamalai. These lines are being strengthened with the addition of a third line of defence to fall back in the event they come under Security Forces attack. Kilaly and Nagerkovil areas in the Muhamalai sector have seen the deployment of increased guerrilla cadres. These sources said that pistol groups have infiltrated the peninsula to attack intelligence operatives and their suspected informants. Groups trained to lay mines and install improvised explosive devices have also been infiltrated into the peninsula.

Whilst focusing on the Jaffna peninsula, the same sources say, the LTTE was stepping up attacks in Vavuniya. They believe the move is intended to compel the Security Forces to commit more resources and attention to the area while they continue the build-up in the north and in the western seaboard of Mannar. To prove the point, the source gave some examples: In December, last year, the guerrillas had carried out 18 claymore mine and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. But in the first two weeks of January, this year, alone more than 20 such attacks have taken place in Vavuniya.

The Army's successes in Sampur and thereafter in Vakarai have seen a re-alignment of LTTE locations in the east, particularly in the Trincomalee district. Intelligence sources say they were now concentrating their cadres in areas north of Trincomalee. One such location, Kumburupiddy came under aerial attacks by the Air Force following this build-up. Some groups are said to have moved towards Vilgamvehera and surrounding areas.

Cadres who abandoned positions in Vakarai unexpectedly in the wake of heavy pressure from the Army, have moved to locations south of Batticaloa. The fact that they made a hurried exit from Vakarai was further proved when the Army this week recovered a cache of T-56 assault rifles, Rocket Propelled Grenades, communication sets and other military hardware buried at a location in Echalampattu. Army Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs) that were operating behind the enemy lines before the re-capture of Vakarai had spotted a group digging trenches. Checks last week led to the recovery of the weapons cache.

Senior Army officials have already announced that they plan to now attack Toppigala. This is to rid the area of guerrilla cadres who had taken shelter in the jungles there after they were forced to flee Vakarai. The move has already led to an exodus of civilians from the village who want to avoid being trapped in a war. With lessons learnt in Vakarai, it is highly unlikely the LTTE will remain in large numbers to heavily resist the Army. They moved out of Sampur to Vakarai when it became clear it was about to fall. Similarly, they moved out of Vakarai, quite unexpectedly, when they realized they were cornered and would come under heavy pressure. The Army achieved one of their major objectives during their offensives in Vakarai. That was to prevent the LTTE from dominating a contiguous stretch of land both north and south of Vakarai. This would have enabled the LTTE to concentrate and consolidate their strength in a larger area in the east.

Important milestone

However, another major objective, to break the offensive capability of the guerrillas was partially achieved. This is through the casualties the guerrillas suffered and some of the weaponry they lost. A lot remains as they have now shifted location and will continue to do so. How the guerrillas shifted from Vakarai to Toppigala has become the subject of a hot debate. The Army insists they used sea routes. However, the Navy argues with equal vigour that they escaped through land.

Be that as it may, when the Army moves from one location to another, the guerrillas keep shifting. That is the primary facet of a guerrilla war. Hence, the Security Forces would have a greater role to play when the Government's programme to resettle internally displaced persons in Vakarai gets under way. They would have to devise ways and means to prevent guerrilla infiltration and attacks. This is while contending with the rising threats in the Jaffna peninsula, Vavuniya, Mannar and holding newly acquired areas in the East will become formidable tasks.

However, a salutary feature in this regard is the record number of Army deserters who have returned to their bases taking advantage of the latest offer of amnesty. Encouraged by this and other key factors, the Army has embarked on important measures to strengthen its establishments. A fuller appreciation of this factor in the light of the new developments in the North and East, which will help the public discern the ground realities better and appreciate the enormities of the problems Sri Lanka is facing, is not possible in view of the ongoing Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities Regulations.

These new developments come at a time when an important milestone in the country's history — the fifth anniversary of the Ceasefire Agreement between the LTTE and the Government — next week. Unlike anytime before, the contents of the CFA now remain only on paper as an undeclared Eelam War IV continues to rage.

Even if it is currently confined to the East, where there are no defined localities as confirmed by the CFA, its importance arose only after the re-capture of Sampur. Then Vakarai became important until the guerrillas gave up the area and fled. Soon, highly publicized coming events in Toppigala will be no different. Thus, battles to sanitize the East of LTTE presence will have to continue until the guerrillas are driven out and more importantly their military capability demolished. That is in the backdrop of mounting threats in other theatres in the north, the western coastal areas, the City of Colombo and principal towns. Fears of imminent attacks often lead to high security alerts. The latest such heightened security blanket in the City of Colombo and suburbs was introduced on Friday. On-the-spot checks by Security Forces and Police led to traffic congestion of a large proportion.

These developments come in a significant backdrop. With just days to go for the fifth anniversary of the Ceasefire Agreement, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has sent his brother and Special Advisor Basil Rajapaksa on an official mission to Japan. He left on Friday night. There he will meet Tokyo's Special Envoy to the Sri Lankan peace process, Yasushi Akashi and senior officials in the Foreign Ministry and the Government. The visit is on the invitation of Japanese Government. Japan is Sri Lanka's largest aid donor.

The Sunday Times learns that among other matters Mr. Rajapaksa will explain to the Japanese Government plans to introduce political proposals to end the ethnic conflict. In this regard he is also to discuss matters relating to President Rajapaksa's two pronged policy of carrying out development programmes simultaneously whilst the Security Forces continue their "war on terror."
Basil Rajapaksa undertook a similar mission to India last week on the invitation of the Government there. The significance of this mission was underscored by the presence in New Delhi of the Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Alok Prasad. The normal diplomatic practice is for heads of missions to travel to their capitals when the head of state visit their country. However, this exception, Government sources say, undercores the importance. Mr. Rajapaksa met, among others, the Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and National Security Advisor R.K. Narayanan.

Before his departure to Tokyo, Mr. Rajapaksa also had a string of meetings with heads of Colombo-based diplomatic missions. That included Norway's Ambassador Hans Brattskar. President Rajapaksa appears to have launched a diplomatic initiative through his brother ahead of the fifth anniversary of the CFA. What it portends is not clear and may take time to unravel. But what is clear is that the guerrillas are digging themselves for bigger battles in the coming weeks.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.