October 
2008

Vol 8-No. 4


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SOUTH ASIA: SRI LANKA                                                                                        News Briefs


 


                       
       (Afghanistan and Myanmar in the 
         map are not members of SAARC)

The Final Push?

Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) detected one Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) aircraft approaching the Trincomalee Naval Base in the night of August 26, 2008 and alerted the troops stationed on the base, who, in turn, fired at the aircraft with anti-aircraft guns, forcing the plane to flee. The tiny aircraft, however, dropped two improvised bombs on the base – one of which failed to explode – injuring 11 sailors. It was the sixth aerial attack by the LTTE's air wing since its first air raid on the Katunayake military Air Base near Colombo International Airport on March 26, 2007.

 

Further, replicating the October 22, 2007, combined air and ground attack by the Black Tiger [suicide wing of the LTTE] squad at the Air Force base at Anuradhapura in northern Sri Lanka, in which 34 combatants, including 14 soldiers and 20 militants, were killed and four SLAF’s aircrafts destroyed, the LTTE, in the pre-dawn hours of September 9, 2008, carried out a combined air and artillery attack over the security force’s (SF’s) Headquarters Complex in Vavuniya. While 10 Army soldiers and one Police constable were killed, seven airmen, nine Police constables and one civilian sustained injuries as a result of the exchange of heavy fire. The troops later recovered 10 bodies of militants, including five female cadres. Simultaneously, two LTTE aircrafts providing support to the artillery attack dropped two bombs, which missed their intended target, instead falling on the office area and failing to cause any considerable damage. Meanwhile, SLAF fighter jets, which had taken off from Katunayake Air Base intercepted the two fleeing aircraft and shot one down in Mullaitivu.

 

These incidents are an index of things to come and a pointer to the fact that, though Colombo believes it is poised for the final push to evict the Tigers from their northern strongholds, a great deal still remains to be accomplished before victory against the LTTE can finally be declared.

 

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, in an interview on September 9, 2008, conceded as much: "Considering the arms and ammunition the LTTE have collected for the past 25 years we have to fight hard during the next few months. That is what people have to expect in the coming months." More importantly the Defence Secretary came close to accepting that the SF’s prime motive to weaken the Tigers by destroying their assets was yet to be fulfilled, reflecting a greater realism that President Mahinda Rajapakse’s claim, on September 4: "When we came into power there were only seven Provincial Councils functioning in the country. We have now increased it up to eight. We would establish the ninth Provincial Council shortly."

 

Now that the SFs have reached Nachchakuda capturing the Vedithalthivu, Illuppukadavai and Vellankulam areas in the coastal belt and important towns like Thunukkai and Malawi, the war has intensified, with the Task Force I operating in the Mannar side, 57 Division in the centre, Task Force II towards the A-9 road and 59 Division in Welioya and the 53rd and 55th Divisions in Muhamalai. It is also evident from the fact that even though the LTTE is losing large number of cadres, the casualties among the SFs have also gone up considerably since July 31, when the troops entered the LTTE heartland of the Kilinochchi District, and losing a total of 195 soldiers (according to the Institute for Conflict Management database). [Given Colombo’s understated accounts and erratic reportage from all the conflict zones, the actual numbers of fatalities could be considerably higher than those indicated above]. The LTTE loss in the corresponding period counts to 1,333. However, prior to July 31, the LTTE had lost 5,743 cadres as compared to 547 soldiers, in since January 1, 2008. The SFs to LTTE loss ratio, consequently, works out at 1:6.8 for the period since July 31, as against 1:10.4 for the earlier period.

 

With the war intensifying, civilians in the conflict zone are trapped, with at least 160,000 internally displaced persons, according to a report by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, most of them having abandoned their homes in the last three months, in the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi Districts. To cater to the needs of these displaced people, there are currently 11 United Nations (UN) and other agencies working in Wanni. Once the UN agencies leave Wanni – under Colombo’s directives in the aftermath of the Norwegian People’s Aid case, where the LTTE took control of all the assets belonging to the aid agency – the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has observers at the Omanthai entry/exit point connecting Wanni to areas in the south, would be the only agency functioning in the LTTE-held areas.

 

Reports indicate that the LTTE is using the entrapped civilians as human shields against the advancing troops. According to a September 8, 2008, BBC report, LTTE leaflets urged the civilians living in the areas under its control to build bunkers. "No houses should be without bunkers. Be it road junctions, play grounds, schools, business establishments, offices – in all places bunkers should be constructed as Safety Mechanisms," the leaflets instructed. Further, according to a August 26, 2008, report, the LTTE political wing leader, B. Nadesan, and its women’s political wing leader, S. Thamilini, stated that the time had come for the entire Tamil populace to fight the Government forces in order to ‘liberate the motherland from the enemy’. These leaflets were handed over to the people in Kilinochchi in response to SLAF-dropped leaflets, written in Tamil, claiming that the rebels were facing huge defeats and urging civilians to save their lives by leaving for Government-held territory. The Government is, however, hopeful that, as in Sampoor, Eethalampattu and Vakarai, it will be able to provide an exit route to the civilians, even as its troops venture deeper into Tiger-held territory

 

The theatre of war does not exhaust the Government’s anxieties. On September 11, 2008, LTTE militants killed seven civilians, who had gone for cultivation work and collecting firewood, at the Ethimale village in the Kotiyagala area close to the Ampara-Moneragala District borders. Earlier, on August 30, 2008, 48 persons, including two children and seven women, were injured in an LTTE-triggered parcel bomb explosion at the Bo-Tree Junction in the Pettah area of capital Colombo. After being severely hit in its effort to generate resources, the LTTE is also reported to have resorted to relatively extreme methods, with the Sri Lanka Police arresting three persons on September 6, for allegedly looting jewellery and money worth over SLR 3,043,000 in the Nuwara Eliya District and sending the money to the LTTE in the North. The LTTE has executed numerous terrorist attacks through 2008 in its efforts to divert the Government’s attention and resources, and to secure some relief in the theatres of open warfare. As many as 45 terror related incidents have been reported from Colombo alone, while the number of incidents recorded outside the theatre of war in the North-East is 67. More worrying is the worsening situation in the Eastern Province, which has recorded as many as 106 incidents so far, since the installation of the democratically elected Provincial Government on May 16, 2008.

 

Sri Lanka has been under a continuous state of emergency since August 13, 2005, and the Government has poured USD 1.5 billion into its all-out offensive since the annulment of the cease-fire agreement in January 2008. Colombo has also increased the strength of the Army by 50,000 personnel, an augmentation of 30 per cent over the existing strength of the Force, and has also increased the number of Home Guards by 20,000, for holding operations in the territories recently recaptured.

 

Despite the significant force augmentation on the Government’s side, and the steady erosion of LTTE capacities, the way forward remains difficult. Several security analysts believe, moreover, that the Tigers may be allowing the Army to move deeper into their territory before launching a decisive counter-attack. Even if such a contingency remains unrealized, the LTTE’s capacity to shift to strategies of protracted guerrilla and terrorist warfare will remain significant even in the event of decisive defeat in positional warfare. Colombo’s quest for peace through war in Sri Lanka does not appear to be slated for an early and conclusive outcome in the immediate future.

 

[South Asian Intelligence Review]

 

 

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