SOUTH ASIA: SRI LANKA News Briefs
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in its report titled "Sri Lanka: Civilian casualties Wanni Overview – March 2009" stated that there had been 2,683 deaths between January 20 and March 7, 2009, inside the No Fire Zone (NFZ) at Mullaitivu. While these figures were claimed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, on March 13, 2009, they were not supported by the UN as ‘verifiable’. Admitting this, Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator stated in New York on March 24, 2009, "The reason we have not come out with this as our figure is because, as I have said before, we cannot verify it in a way that you want to be able to verify, if you put it as your public figure."
The Voice of Tigers, the LTTE’s ‘official radio’ claimed, on March 1, 2009, that the Sri Lankan armed forces had killed 2,018 Tamil civilians in January and February 2009 in Wanni, and that 700 of the victims were children. According to an April 3, 2009, BBC report, Mike Foster, a senior official with the United Kingdom Department for International Development, "There are credible reports that up to 100 civilians are dying and being injured every day, including in the [government-designated] no-fire zone." Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaitivu at 2,972 till April 5, 2009. A total of 1,959 militants and 931 soldiers have also been killed in the fighting. (SATP data is primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net, since the Government is not releasing any figure regarding the civilian and SF casualties in the region. There can be no independent confirmation, as media access is denied in the conflict zone).
According to another March 26, 2009, report, Sir John indicated that there may be between 150,000 and 190,000 civilians still trapped in the Wanni area, contrary to the Government’s estimate of 30,000 to 40,000, and urged both sides to call for a ‘brief cease-fire’: "Our first appeal is to the LTTE to let the civilians out in a safe and orderly fashion. We are also concerned that the Government of Sri Lanka should do everything they can to avoid civilian casualties, to do as they said they will do and not to use heavy weapons in this area, and we also call them to respect international humanitarian law in every area… And we have suggested again some kind of humanitarian pause to allow that to happen and to allow the civilian population to leave."
The demand for the "humanitarian pause" has been rejected outright by the President Mahinda Rajapakse Government, which has been reiterating that it is following a ‘Zero Civilian Casualty Policy’. According to a March 29 report, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN, H.M.S. Palihakkara, asserted the Security Forces (SFs) were not using heavy weapons in the NFZ, adding, "There is no military sense in firing at such short range heavy weapons, because one remains in kind of a house-to-house combat situation. As you know LTTE is firing from the No Fire Zone. There may have been occasions. I don’t know, I am speculating. There may have been occasions, where this automatic return fire may have (taken place, by the Sri Lankan forces). But forces are not firing deliberately."
Further, while speaking at the weekly press briefing, Brigadier Nanayakkara on March 26, stated that the LTTE has now been restricted to an area of one square kilometre, excluding the 14 square kilometres NFZ. He noted, consequently, that the SFs had to liberate another 21 square kilometres in Mullaitivu. However, 20 square kilometres of this consists of the NFZ, lagoon and wetlands. Three years ago, the LTTE controlled 15,000 square kilometres of land.
On April 5, 2009 the military captured the entire Puthukkudiyiruppu region, the LTTE’s last stronghold and ended the long siege on the last square kilometre held by the LTTE. More than 420 militants, including Northern area leader Theepan, the female wing leader Vidusha and her deputy Durga, Batticaloa leader Nagulesh and Gadafi were killed, and military wing leader Bhanu was critically injured, in about three days of fierce fighting in the area. Another five senior leaders, identified as Seelambarasan, leader of the LTTE’s Radha Regiment; his deputy Anbu, the militant in charge of the mortar section Gopal; Asmi, in charge of mines section; and a leader of LTTE’s ‘Sodia Regiment’, Mohana; were among the other top leaders killed. According to military sources the LTTE Chief, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, has taken refuge in the NFZ, mingling with civilians, along with remaining top rung leaders, including intelligence wing leader Pottu Amman, Sea Tigers (sea wing of the LTTE) leader Soosai, and Velavan, another top Sea Tiger leader. It has now been confirmed that Prabhakaran also had a narrow escape as he fled the area a day before the troops encircled the last kilometre held by the LTTE. Puthukkudiyiruppu and Iranapalai were the last strongholds held by the LTTE, and the toughest battle in the Wanni liberation operation was fought in Puthukkudiyiruppu. This is the first time that the SFs have taken full control of Puthukkudiyiruppu during the three-decade long conflict in the North East. Troops are now poised to encircle the NFZ with the objective of rescuing the civilian population detained there by the LTTE. The Defence Ministry, meanwhile, said that all senior LTTE leaders ‘are now hiding in the no-fire-zone holding the civilians as protective shield’. Noting that the troops were locked in ‘man-to-man combat’ in Mullaitivu, the Ministry said that the remaining LTTE cadres ‘still forced to fight the Sri Lankan Army in the no-fire-zone are facing total annihilation’.
Earlier, by the evening of April 1, 2009, the military had captured the Puthukkudiyiruppu town and Iranapalai area in Mullaitivu District and encircled more than 200 LTTE cadres in the surrounding terrain. The SFs encircled this last LTTE area in north-east Puthukkudiyiruppu after capturing the Pachchaippulmoaddai junction, the last supply route connected to the NFZ from the mainland.
Reports also indicate that the LTTE was, of late, deploying its senior-most cadres on the war front to thwart the military’s final offensive. Intelligence chief Pottu Amman was believed to be active on the ground as fighting raged in Puthukkudiyiruppu. It is reported that he had even called for urgent assistance from other LTTE leaders, requesting more weapons to the Puthukkudiyiruppu battlefield. According to ground military information, the Army had monitored a conversation between Pottu Amman and another unknown senior leader over radio communications on Friday March 26. In that conversation, Pottu Amman had sought replenishments of small arms as LTTE forces came under heavy military attack. It is also reported that Pottu Amman was leading the battle in the Iranapalai area, north of Puthukudirippu. Earlier, reports said all second level LTTE leaders had been called to the battlefront, with most senior leaders already having been killed by the military. Civilians, who fled the Puthukkudiyiruppu area few days ago, told the military that, on February 4, they had seen Pottu Amman in the Matalan area in Mullaitivu, recruiting people.
Charles Anthony, the eldest son of the LTTE chief, Prabhakaran, was injured during a military operation in Puthukkudiyiruppu on March 31. Two top LTTE leaders, Amirthap alias Amuthab and Kobith alias Gobith, were killed during these clashes at Puthukkudiyiruppu. Amirthap was the leader of the LTTE’s ‘Charles Anthony Regiment’. He became the leader in 2008, after serving as the special leader for the ‘Imran Pandiyan Regiment’ in 2006. Kobith, a popular senior military leader in most of the ‘Charles Anthony Regiment’-led LTTE operations against the Army, was formally the ‘special leader’ of the ‘Charles Anthony Regiment’ in 2007.
Despite dramatic gains for the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), a great deal remains to be done to finish off the war. The intensity of fighting can be gauged from a March 17 Voice of Tigers claim in its evening broadcast that 604 Sri Lanka Army soldiers had been killed during three days of heavy fighting in the Puthukkudiyiruppu area, while several hundred soldiers wounded. These figures have, however, not been confirmed either by official or independent sources. Sporadic fighting and small-scale door-to-door operations are continuing in the area, targeting LTTE pockets and resistance positions. "Despite its successive setbacks at the Mullaitivu battlefront, LTTE is continuing shelling artillery barrages and mortar from the Government-declared No Fire Zone," according to a Defence Ministry statement. Reports also indicate that the LTTE had set up gun positions in the NFZ, as demonstrated by the March 25 missile attacks from the NFZ on Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) helicopters evacuating military casualties.
Significantly, on February 20, 2009, two LTTE light aircrafts had been shot down by the SFs in Colombo and Katunayake following an attempt to bomb Colombo city. One of the aircrafts did manage to drop a bomb on the Office of the Inland Revenue Department, injuring at least 50 persons and destroying the building. Another two injured persons later succumbed to their injuries. LTTE cadres were also executing suicide attacks targeting the SFs in the battlefield, though they failed to cause significant casualties among the troops. Broadly, it remains the case that the LTTE still has the wherewithal to delay the inevitable.
On April 1, however, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake boasted, "The Government can finish off terrorism completely within half an hour if it acted in an inhuman manner. Driving out terrorists (LTTE) from a very small bastion in the north has been time-consuming because the Government is acting most humanely, considering the safety of civilians held by the LTTE as a human shield." Consequently, the Government, on March 31, rejected the LTTE’s offer of a cease-fire, saying that the Government would not accept a truce under any circumstances. President Rajapakse declared, "We will not cave into pressures from any international quarters locally and internationally and will not stop until the war was completely over." Earlier on the same day, the LTTE’s new head of international diplomatic relations, S. Pathmanathan, said in an interview on Tamil Net that the outfit did not believe war was the only means to achieve their aspirations, and urged the global community to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to enter into a cease-fire. Pathmanathan added, further, "Laying down arms before any political solution is unrealistic. It is wrong to assume that the versatile and resilient LTTE is in a weakened position." Responding to accusations of using civilians as human shields, he claimed that the Tamils in the LTTE-held areas were staying there of their own free will.
Defence Affairs spokesman, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, however, indicated, on April 1, that the Government was ready for a ‘pause in firing’, if the LTTE freed the civilians trapped inside the NFZ, but that this would not constitute a cease-fire with the LTTE at any point. He said that a cease-fire could become valid only when the LTTE agreed to lay down arms and renounce violence.
Clearly, the LTTE hopes that international pressure and the growing anxiety over the loss of civilian lives will force Colombo into some compromise. However, any backslide at this juncture would jeopardise the gains of the SFs over the past months, and bringing this protracted war to a logical and decisive conclusion remains an imperative for the Sri Lanka Government.
[South Asia Intelligent Review]
149 persons killed during the week in North-East: 110 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants, 24 civilians and 15 soldiers were among 149 persons killed in the North during the week. 22 dead bodies of the LTTE militants were recovered as troops moving past the Puttumatalan junction in the No Fire Zone (NFZ) further extended their defence line to the eastern edge of the beach virtually breaking the NFZ into two major portions, on April 21. Further, the Security Forces (SFs) killed 14 militants and injured 21 others during clashes in the Puthukkudiyiruppu east area of Mullaitivu District on April 22. Troops engaged in rescue operations at Puttumatalan NFZ in Mullaitivu District advanced further towards the southern sector close to Ampalavanpokkanai and Valayarmadam areas killing over 10 militants on April 23. Rev. Father T. R. Vasanthaseelan, the director of Human Development Centre of Caritas Jaffna, the social arm of the Catholic Church in the Jaffna Diocese, was wounded in the morning of April 23 when the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) fired shells on the Our Lady of Roses Church in Valaignarmadam inside the NFZ of Mullaitivu District for the second consecutive day, claimed the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net. 14 civilians who had taken refuge at the church were killed in the shelling. The church is the main centre for people seeking refuge in Valaignarmadam. The SLA has attacked the church despite repeated calls from Jaffna Diocese not to target the church where 17 priests and 22 nuns were continuing to serve their congregations, the Website added. The 58th troops Division Commander Brigadier Shavendra Silva said in Kilinochchi on April 24 that troops have already captured six kilometres of the NFZ in Mullaitivu District, adding, "At least 15 soldiers were killed and about 75 injured during the past four or five days due to LTTE artillery fire. The military operation will end when we fully rescue the remaining civilians from the LTTE. And that will be the end of the LTTE." At least 40 militants were killed and 35 others wounded as troops captured Valayarmadam inside the NFZ on April 26 rescuing nearly 2,000 civilians bringing the total number of civilians rescued by the troops to 111,000 as of April 26. Sri Lanka Navy on duty in the seas off Mullaitivu confronted a cluster of LTTE attack in the early hours of April 26 and sank three of those vessels with militants on board. According to the Navy, at least 12 militants were confirmed killed and several others injured in confrontations that lasted for few hours. Sri Lanka Army; Daily News; Tamil Net; Colombo Page, April 21 - 27, 2009.
Government rejects LTTE offer of cease-fire: A cornered LTTE on April 26, 2009 announced a unilateral cease-fire, but Sri Lanka quickly dismissed the offer calling it a "joke" even as troops captured the Vlayarmadam area from the LTTE and encircled the remaining strip of land where the outfit’s chief Velupillai Prabhakaran is believed to be hiding. The truce offer by the LTTE, currently confined to a 5 sq. Km strip of land in Wanni region, came amid calls from UN, US and UK and other countries for a pause in the offensive in the northern region for the safety of civilians. The LTTE said it announced the cease-fire in the face of an "unprecedented humanitarian crisis" and in response to the calls made by the UN, EU, US, India and other countries. However, the Government said it is not taking the truce offer by the LTTE seriously and termed it as a "joke". "It is an attempt by the LTTE to deceive the world and get time for them to regroup. There is no meaning for a ceasefire at this time with a losing force like the LTTE. It is a joke," Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said. PTI News, April 26, 2009.
202 persons killed during the week: 156 civilians, 44 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants and two soldiers were killed in the North during the week. At least 13 militants were killed and 15 others injured as cashes erupted between Security Forces (SFs) and militants at east Puthukkudiyiruppu in the Mullaitivu District since the morning of April 15. On April 16, 57 civilians were killed and more than 300 wounded when the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) fired shells and cannons inside the No Fire Zone (NFZ) at Mullivaaykkaal, Pokkanai and Iraddaivaaykkaal in Mullaitivu District, the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net reported. The SLA continued indiscriminate shelling inside the NFZ in Mullaitivu District on April 17 and April 18 killing at least 60 civilians, claimed Tamil Net. The SLA shelling targeted Iraddaivaaykkaal and Mullivaaykkaal areas of the NFZ. In addition, at least 30 civilians were killed in sporadic shelling by the SLA in the Iraddaivaaykkaal and Mullivaaykkaal areas of the NFZ on April 19, reported Tamil Net. Meanwhile, the Defence Ministry said that the SFs encountered stiff resistance from the LTTE militants holed up in the NFZ. "Intercepted radio transmissions revealed that 17 LTTE cadres were killed and 22 others suffered injuries in the day’s fighting," the report said. Sri Lanka Army; Daily News; Tamil Net; Colombo Page, April 14 - 20, 2009.
463 persons killed in the North during the week: 282 civilians and 181 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants were killed in the North during the week. On April 5, 2009 the Security Forces (SFs) clashed with LTTE militants in the Vishuamadu and Mullaitivu areas killing 14 of them, including six females. Troops conducting search and clear operations in the Puthukkudiyiruppu area of Mullaitivu District recovered 72 more dead bodies of the militants on April 6 raising the total number of recovered bodies from the area to 525 since April 1. 129 civilians were killed and 282 others sustained injuries in Sri Lanka Army (SLA) artillery shelling inside the No Fire Zone (NFZ) in Mullaitivu District through the day on April 8, the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net reported. SFs advancing ahead of the eastern limits of Puthukkudiyiruppu in Mullaitivu District clashed with the militants amid heavy resistance all day long on April 8 killing 12 militants and injuring 20 others. 114 civilians were killed and 661 others injured in military operations during the past three days inside the NFZ, Tamil Net reported on April 11. While 50 civilians were killed and 296 injured on April 8, 52 others were killed 315 injured on April 9. 12 civilians were reported dead and 50 injured in the military operation on April 10. On April 11, 17 civilians were reported killed in SLA attack inside NFZ, reports Tamil Net. Further, on April 12, at least 31 civilians were killed inside the NFZ in shelling and gunfire by the SLA. Sri Lanka Army; Daily News; Tamil Net; Colombo Page, April 7- 13, 2009.
712 persons killed in the North-East during the week: 357 civilians, 354 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants and a sailor were killed in the North-East during the week. Heavy ground battles between the Army and LTTE on March 29 left 29 militants dead. The fighting erupted after Security Forces (SFs) broke through a fortification built by the LTTE to defend their last strip of land. A senior Sea Tiger leader, identified as Uththaman, who commanded the ground battle, was also killed. On the same day, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) continued artillery, mortar and long-distance gunfire killing at least 53 civilians and injuring 119, claimed the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net. On March 30, the SLA shelling claimed the lives of 70 civilians. In addition, gunfire from the SLA positions across the lagoon killed 18 civilians on the road which links the makeshift hospital with Internally Displaced Person settlements. Separately, naval troops following a pre-dawn sea encounter off the seas at Chalai in Mullaitivu District, killed 26 Sea Tigers [cadres of the sea wing of the LTTE], including one of its top leaders identified as Maran, and submerged four Sea Tiger boats. A sailor was also killed in the battle. A ‘huge stock’ of LTTE armaments also perished with the boats. On March 31, the SLA shelling killed 45 civilians and injured 120 others within the ‘Safety Zone’ in Mullaitivu District throughout March 31, Tamil Net reported. 19 militants were killed and more than 200 others encircled as the entire Puthukkudiyiruppu town and Iranapalai area in Mullaitivu District came under SF control by the evening of April 1. The SFs surrounded the last LTTE-held territory in north-east Puthukkudiyiruppu after capturing Pachchaippulmoaddai junction, the last supply route connected to the No Fire Zone (NFZ) from the mainland. During the search operations conducted in the area, the SFs recovered dead bodies of 32 militants.
31 militants were killed by the SFs during clashes in Puthukkudiyiruppu in the morning of April 2. In addition, 13 militants, including an explosives expert identified as Kandaiah Sarawanandam alias Paramanadam Master, were killed when Special Task Force (STF) commandos ambushed them in the morning of April 3 at Kongahahela in the Ampara District. 18 Sea Tigers were killed when the Sri Lanka Navy, on April 3, engaged a flotilla of 10 LTTE boats in the north-eastern sea off the coast of Alampil, destroying three of the boats. The military said three naval craft received minor damage and two sailors suffered injuries in the incident. 93 LTTE militants were killed in fierce clashes with the SFs in the Puthukkudiyiruppu East area on April 4. On the same day, Sri Lanka Army (SLA) attacks inside the NFZ killed at least 71 civilians and injured 143 others. Heavy shelling was reported from Maaththalan, Pokkanai, Valaignarmadam, Iraddaivaaykkaal and other areas of the NFZ.
On April 5, the military captured the entire Puthukkudiyiruppu region, the LTTE’s last stronghold and ended the long siege on the last square kilometre held by the LTTE. More than 450 militants, including Northern area leader Theepan, female wing leader Vidusha and her deputy Durga, Batticaloa leader Nagulesh and Gadafi, were killed and military wing leader Bhanu was critically injured, in about three days of fierce fighting in the area. According to military sources, LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran has taken refuge in the NFZ, mingling with the civilians, along with remaining top-rung leaders, including intelligence wing leader Pottu Amman, Sea Tigers leader Soosai, and Velavan, another Sea Tiger leader. Sri Lanka Army; Daily News; Tamil Net; Colombo Page, March 31- April 6, 2009.
[South Asia Intelligent Review]