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Mahinda wonders if April prophesies have come true

The LTTE’s air attack on the Air Force base at Katunayake adjacent to the Bandaranaike International Airport jolted the country early in the week. The air attack was the talking point in the discussions of the military as well as in the political circles throughout the week.
The country woke up on Monday morning to the shocking news of the LTTE’s air capability demonstrated for the first time although there were intelligence reports and speculation in the media that the LTTE was in the process of building an air capability using small-lightweight aircraft.
By strange coincidence several VIPs were also present at the Airport on the day of the attack. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe arrived in the country from Bangkok after celebrating his 58th birthday in Phuket with wife Maitree and several other close friends. The Opposition Leader arrived in a Cathay Pacific flight sometime before the LTTE attack. However, Wickremesinghe had left the Airport by the time the attack took place. An Editor of a newspaper and a well known female journalist, close to the Opposition Leader, who were also in Phucket to celebrate Wickremesinghe’s birthday, arrived at Katunayake shortly after Wickremesinghe left. The explosion at the Katunayake Air Force base took place a few minutes later.
When UNP’s Foreign Affairs Secretary Ravi Karunanayake telephoned Mr. Wickremesinghe, in the dead of the night to inform him of the attack at Katunayake SLAF base, Mr Wickremesinghe was alarmed and told him that he had just returned from the airport. However, Karunanayake explained to Mr. Wickremesinghe that the alleged attack by the ‘Air Tigers’ had taken place after Mr. Wickremesinghe left the air port.
It was a rare coincidence that some important people were at the Bandaranaike International Air Port that night including Minister A.H.M. Fowzie and deposed Minister Mangala Samaraweera.
Petroleum Minister A.H.M. Fowzie was expected to leave for Egypt for an Islamic conference. But the person who was most affected due to the uneasy situation that arose following the attack was non other than former minister Mangala Samaraweera. The former minister is under the political spotlight at the moment. Samaraweera was leaving to Singapore with his mother Khema Samaraweera who was expected to receive medical treatment. Samaraweera who is used to traveling through the VIP gates was seen pushing his mother on a wheel chair and proceeding through normal channels this time around.
Samaraweera and his mother had almost boarded the flight to Singapore when the incident took place and the entire airport was in panic. Passengers were immediately instructed to lie on the ground and brace themselves. Samaraweera accompanying his elderly mother had to first move her wheelchair near a wall for safety and thereafter take precautionary measures.
Expected to board the same flight as Samaraweera was a close friend of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Rohan Welivita. He phoned the President as the events were unfolding and informed him that Mangala Samaraweera was also there with his mother. The President who was unable to get through to Samaraweera’s phone had asked Welivita to hand over his phone to Samaraweera. The President spoke with Samaraweera for some time and inquired after his safety and how he was. Thereafter the President spoke to Mrs. Khema Samaraweera as well.
The President was also in contact with Airport authorities instructing them to bring the situation back to normal. After the initial flights arriving to the country were diverted to airports in India, authorities were able to commence operations at the airport by 3 am.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa also contacted JVP parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa soon after he heard of the LTTE attack on the Katunayake Air force Base.
“Wimal, did you hear of the attack,” the President asked
The JVP leaders were already discussing about the incident. JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe, Parliamentarians Tilvin Silva, Wimal Weerawansa, and Anura Kumara Dissanayake were at the meeting.
“But the air force has not suffered a big damage” the president went on to say.
“What matters is how they returned to Killinochchi after the attack” said Wimal Weerawansa.
“It is just the matter that concerns me. I will take stern action on this. However, I want to meet the party leaders and explain to them about the situation,” the President said.
Wimal Weerawansa said it was a welcome move.
The President had also spoken to Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who briefed him from his residence in Welihena, Kochchikade of what was going on at Katunayake. He said that he had heard the sound of guns but there was silence shortly afterwards.
The threat to the country’s sovereignty and the political implications arising from the existence of an LTTE air capability have seen political parties airing various views blaming each other for letting the LTTE build up such a force. The government holding a press conference on the very afternoon of the attack was quick to blame the UNP and the Ceasefire Agreement for the LTTE’s air capability. The UNP too refuting the allegations and citing intelligence reports pointed out that the LTTE had acquired parts of the airplane and built the runaway during the previous People’s Alliance regime. The UNP also called on the President and the government to resign on the inability to prevent the air attack
Thirteen political parties met with the President for a discussion on Monday evening regarding the attack and the future action the government should take to face the LTTE’s air threat. The JVP was critical of the government and the Air Force for failing to prevent the LTTE from attacking the Air Force base and thereafter letting the LTTE aircraft to escape. JVP leader Somawansa Ameresinghe posed many questions regarding the military misadventure. UNP dissidents, Public administration and Home Affairs Minister Karu Jayasuriya and Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda wanted clarifications made on the matter when former Air Force Commander and Chief of Defence Staff Donald Perera said that they did not have enough equipment to monitor the movement.
He said that the radar system acquired by the Air Force from India was not sufficient to detect low flying aircraft. The President more or less defended the armed forces in the face of the JVP criticism. The President said that the terrorists were not able to fulfill their targets because of the diligence of the Air Force and the security forces. “Everyone should pay attention to those who are trying to give false interpretations to the effort in defeating terrorism. By now we have done a lot to rid people of terrorism and usher in peace. We believe that all of us should work in unison to bring a solution to this problem. Criticizing the security forces is an obstacle to this task,” the President said.
The President also met Editors of national newspapers to explain the present situation, particularly in the light of the LTTE air attack. The President who was speaking freely with the Editors said with a smile on his face that when he heard about an explosion at the airbase early Monday morning, he had wondered for a moment whether the April prophesies that many politicians were expecting had come true. “There are April Queens,” he said with a laugh and added: “Lets see what happens.” The President was referring to certain astrological beliefs that have come to take precedence among many politicians in the country of late that several vital political changes are going to take place after a planetary change in mid-April.
Addressing the Editors he said that the Air Force has enough air power to neutralize LTTE’s air capability. “This LTTE air capability is a new phenomenon. It is a new phenomenon in international terrorism as well and brings about a new aspect to terrorism,” he said.
Speaking about how the international media reported on the incident President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that that CNN and BBC had said that the Airport had been attacked when in fact it was the Air Force base that had been attacked by the LTTE. The President had called the local correspondent of CNN early in the morning and requested him to correct the report. But the same report had been used in the news bulletin at eight o’clock as well.
The President asked the editors to give a fair and balanced view of what is taking place. He made a request not to discourage the security forces since things have reached a critical stage. “Anyone is free to criticise me and my brothers. But when criticising the security forces it should be done with care,” he said.
On the arrest and release of Maubima journalist Munisami Parameswari, the President said that it had been done on the information available at the time. “We did not know who Parameswari was. But when her accomplice was a suicide bomber it was natural for the police investigators to arrest her,” he said and added that both Sinha Ratnatunga and Victor Ivan had called him regarding the issue and queried whether there was any evidence available against her. The President went on to say that there were no threats against the journalists but the government has to check on situations arising from security issues. “If I don’t take precaution then you would question me,” he noted.
The President also said that he had called Mangala Samaraweera on the day of the attack since he heard from the airport that Samaraweera was waiting to board a flight that day. He said that he spoke with Samaraweera’s mother too.
President Rajapaksa said that he did not have any problem with Samaraweera but that Samaraweera should withdraw the statement he made that an abduction takes place every five hours in the country. “I do not have anything against Samaraweera but as the foreign minister he should defend the country and not create more problems,” he noted. The President also noted that there is no truth in what Samaraweera had said referring to abductions and disappearances.
Speaking about Sripathi Sooriyarachchi, President Rajapaksa said that he was in the possession of a letter sent by a person with an article published in the Sunday Leader newspaper sometime ago with serious allegations leveled against Sooriyarachchi. “I have put it aside as the person who sent the letter had also sent it to the CID. I do not have to do anything since the person who sent it had done the needful by sending it to the CID,” he said.
The newspaper article referred to by the President was written by Fredrika Jansz titled “Sripathi’s dirty secrets” and appeared on June 5 (Sunday)2005. In the newspaper article the wife of one of Sooriyarachchi’s slain bodyguards, had made serious allegations against him in connection with the death of her husband.
The President also told the editors that although there were several attacks on the airport and the SLAF base in 2001 when Chandrika Kumaratunga was president there was nobody at that time who called for her resignation as well as the resignation of the Defense Ministry Secretary.
The magnitude of the damage was huge but the opposition was “mum” the President said.
He said it was Lakshman Kadirgamar, the former minister of Foreign Affairs, who brought to the notice of the international community of LTTE’s air capability and told the whole world that it was a dangerous phenomenon.
But when someone queried from the President why Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama down played the whole issue when he met with the foreign correspondents, the President said that this was untrue and added that Bogollagama had chosen his words carefully.
Besides all these, the President was preoccupied with the idea of resolving the ethnic crisis in the country once and for all. The government is under obligation to the international community to put forward its proposals for a peaceful resolution to the ethnic crisis before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year festival which will be celebrated on April 13 and 14. The government’s proposals are likely to come in the form of SLFP proposals and are likely to be tabled at the All Party Representative Committee.
The President’s view on a resolution to the ethnic conflict is that despite him being elected on the vote of the Sinhala people he would put forward a reasonable solution. He was of the opinion that almost all Tamils other than a few friends had preferred the UNP to the PA. His thinking is that in the future too even if he grants a solution to the ethnic problem the Tamils would not vote for him.
The President had told some of his friends that if he provides a solution it might not be popular with those who voted for him and as a result he would lose some votes. However, he had also said that he would be committed to the pledge he made to offer a reasonable solution to the ethnic problem as President of the country. He had said that the SLFP’s proposals to the All Party Representative Committee will be presented shortly.
Meanwhile the UNP Political Affairs Committee met on Thursday. The UNP was basically in a jubilant mood since the thinking of most of the members was that their strategy to capture power is in motion. The Political Affairs Committee discussed the current political situation in the country and the Mangala Samaraweera, - Sripathi Sooriyarachchi issue. The committee decided that it should keep the issue etched in the minds of the people since some feared that it would be eclipsed by the approaching Avurudu season. Thinking that the issue would sink into oblivion with the upcoming festive season they decided to appoint a committee to keep the issue in the news as it has paid political dividends to the UNP.
It was seen at the meeting that the party’s recently appointed Colombo district leader Ravi Karunanayake is playing a major role in all these issues and is closer to party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe more than before. Karunanayake raised the issue of Mohammed Mahroof leaking information about money from the Lafarge Cement Company being channeled to the Ports Ministry.
The CID last week filed action in the Colombo Magistrate Courts on the misappropriation of twelve million rupees given by Lafarge Cement Company to the Ports Authority for using a land belonging to the authority. The CID also sought the court’s permission to check with the banks as to who had deposited the cheque and in which account and what had happened to the money. The courts had given due permission to proceed on the matter.
Speaking at the Political Affairs Committee Ravi Karunanayake raised the issue and asked why Mohamed Mahroof, who is the local agent for Lafarge, was raising such issues when Mangala Samaraweera and Sripathi Sooriyarachchi are helpful to the UNP.
It seems now as if Mahroof has been discarded by the UNP given his connections with Milinda Moragoda.
Meanwhile it is learnt that the Milroy Perera committee report on the UNP’s CMC debacle, which has been kept under wraps for several months, is to be made public. It was alleged in the report that the UNP nomination papers for the Colombo Municipal Council were tampered with by Mahroof on the instructions of Milinda Moragoda who has now joined the government and is holding the Tourism portfolio. The Elections Commissioner rejected the UNP’s nomination list since there was a discrepancy with the election laws where the person whose name was newly inserted was under-aged.
When Ravi Karunanayake raised the issue about Mahroof, Lakshman Kiriella queried whether Karunanayake is trying to rid Mahroof also from the party. Ravi Karunanayake is undoubtedly working hard to bring the UNP back into power and weed out all undesirable elements.
Ravi Karunanayake also made it a point to congratulate Akila Viraj Kariyawasam who was invited by Ranil Wickremesinghe to attend the Political Affairs Committee meeting. Karunanayake commended Kariyawasam for carrying out a poster campaign saying “Dhooshanaya Bheeshanaya Saha Rajapaksa Poshanaya (Corruption, Terror and nurturing the Rajapaksas).
There are also cracks appearing in the UNP with a cold war breaking out amongst most of its prominent members. One such case is in connection with the new UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake. Some party seniors complain that Attanayake is inaccessible and they have to go through a conduit to reach him. One such conduit they say is former Airport Authority Chairman Gamini Abeyratne or “Taxi Abey.”
The political affairs committee also decided to hold mammoth rallies in the electorates of the 18 dissidents who joined the government. Meanwhile a meeting to be held by the UNP on April 4 at Kosgashandiya was discussed at a meeting chaired by party chairman Rukman Senanayake. Mohamed Mahroof and several local government UNP representatives were also present at the meeting. To show the party’s strength they proposed that a procession should be held from the Khettarama Stadium to Kosgashandiya to disapprove the party critics.
Be that as it may the crisis ridden Colombo Municipal Council is now facing a multitude of problems with regard to its functions including the garbage and mosquito menace that is bound to arise with the onset of the Monsoon rains. There should be a concerted effort to combat Dengue and Chikungunya when the rainy season arrives.
The President met with all Colombo Municipal Council members last week. The President was not impressed although the councilors said that they had discharged their functions efficiently.
It is likely that the President would suspend the Colombo Municipal Council shortly and appoint a city administrator as the person in charge. Opposition Leader of the CMC Vasudeva Nanayakkara is also backing the move as he feels that nothing had been done by the council finance committees. It was the other day that Public Administration Minister Karu Jayasuriya, who himself is a former Mayor of Colombo, supported the appointment of another former Mayor Omar Kamil as the Chief Administrator of the city.
It is now likely that Sirisena Cooray, who was originally earmarked for the post, will be appointed to a substantial position. Earlier the UNP nominated Sirisena Cooray as their Mayoral candidate with the backing of powerful politicians such as Milinda Moragoda and Mohamed Mahroof. It was this list that was rejected by the Elections Commissioner.
The JVP Politburo met at the party headquarters on Wednesday. They discussed at length on the situation that had surfaced in the aftermath of the LTTE attack on the Air Force base.
“The government is responsible for the country’s security and we as a political party must support it. We must also compel the government to take right decisions,” said the JVP leader. The members of the politburo agreed with him.
They decided to hold the JVP’s May Day rally on April 30 against separatism, privatization of state assets and corruption.
The politburo also decided to hold the general meeting of party branch organizations at 3pm on April 3 at the Henry Pedris Park in Thimbirigasyaya.
Meanwhile the European Union resolution at the UN Human Rights Council sessions, which concluded in Geneva on Friday, had been differed. The EU resolution on Sri Lanka was presented in June last year but had not been taken up. Before the commencement of the sessions Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe discussed with the EU representative in Geneva and with almost 20 other representatives from EU countries about what was said in the resolution. At this discussion, also attended by Solicitor General C.R. De Silva and Deputy Solicitors General Yasantha Kodagoda and Shavindra Fernando, the Sri Lankan delegation had taken the resolution section by section and explained what the government had done. However, several NGO representatives had lobbied strongly with the EU to get the resolution taken up at the sessions but their effort had failed.
It was also speculated that Home Affairs and Public Administration Minister Karu Jayasuriya had also played a part in getting the resolution differed by holding extensive discussions on the matter with the German Ambassador in India.

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Uniting against terror

They say the terrorist only needs to succeed once. A single attempt that strikes fear into the hearts of the citizenry that runs far deeper than the ensuing military losses. The aim of the terrorist is to create insecurity, instill fear and besiege a populace. The military gain is almost inconsequential. The resultant terror is the greater measure of success.
Therefore, at midnight on Sunday, March 26, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam succeeded.
The attack on the Katunayake Air Force base not only bears all the potential for exponential economic fallout for Sri Lanka, but turned a page in the war against the LTTE.
The Tigers have come of age. They may possess derelict and outdated aircraft that have little or no fighting power against the government owned supersonic jets, but the humiliating fact of the matter is that the organisation’s ‘air force’ not only attacked the high security base but went back home to the Wanni to roost 40 minutes later.
The damage sustained is virtually non-existent, so say the government. There was no harm caused to the international airport or any tourist there, leaving the authorities to breathe a sigh of relief. But succeed the LTTE did, and while it is unlikely that they would attempt it again any time soon, they returned to Wanni fully assured that they leave in their wake, a frightened and insecure population.
And indeed, if the LTTE is now aerially empowered, that means none of us are safe. The capital Colombo is now more vulnerable than ever, parliament is at risk, the President is at risk and to be sure, the ordinary citizen, going about his business in the heart of the city stands at great risk.
In fact the attack on the air force base increased the government’s defence burden a thousand times, upping the stakes and leaving it to consider options that have hitherto remained unchartered territory. The air force could till now, carry out sorties on rebel targets without looking over its shoulder all the time. Air power was till now, the state’s domain.
Since March 26, the equation has changed dramatically.
Art of War author and one of the greatest military strategists of all time, Sun Tzu would say that the Sunday night attack on the air base had a lesson to teach the government, the armed forces and the general public – never underestimate your enemy.
For years the media has been harping on the LTTE’s development of an air wing. There have been exposes and lengthy articles about the manner in which the Tigers had imported aircraft parts and smuggled them into their territory and sent their cadres abroad for training. For some reason, all this reporting and advanced warning had little or no impact on the forces’ preparedness for this eventuality.
It is time then, to gird up our loins for a battle like never before. It is time to quit harping about ‘Tigers becoming pussycats’ and certainly time to stop fighting a war in wonderland. Our jubilation at the recent military gains may have blinded us to the grim realities that have protracted this civil war for more than two decades. The time has come to wake up and smell the coffee.
For the government, the aerial bombardment of Katunayake has been a massive loss of face. It is not however by any stretch of the imagination a debacle. Proper damage control methods and better planning for contingencies on the ground will go a long way in neutralising the threat from the Tigers’ ‘air force’. Fortunately, the forewarning of their capability came with minimal losses; now is the time to maximise on that advantage. It has to simultaneously take steps to ease the minds of its people, who are now contemplating an existence with not only ground attacks to be wary of but also being bombed to smithereens in their beds at night by terrorist aircraft. The fear psychosis created by the Katunayake will be the hardest battle the government has to fight and it is one that cannot be won by blacking out details of the attack or concealing the truth. The government must treat its people as mature citizens, capable of dealing with the truth, however brutal and ugly reality may be. Concealment breeds suspicion and the people deserve to know.
Instead, the government seems intent to play the blame game. Within hours of the attack, Cabinet Spokesman Nimal Siripala De Silva unblinkingly told media personnel that the attacks had been carried out in planes the LTTE had acquired during the UNP initiated ceasefire agreement. The statement was rich, but not surprising, The Sri Lankan people have long since come to expect its leaders to be reactive to emergency situations rather than proactive, quick to pin blame and slow to introspect and take steps to prevent similarly adverse situations. De Silva’s comment came before an investigation had even commenced into the incident, making it all the more obvious that all the government was trying to gain from what is nothing less than a national crisis, was political mileage.
The main opposition United National Party has been no less lowly. Instead of reaching a hand of support out to the government to assist in the current crisis, it has been quick to condemn and eager to obtain maximum political gain from the attack. In fact, to the sorrow of many Sri Lankans, the Green camp has seemed almost jubilant about the turn of events, believing no doubt that this attack on Katunayake, like its predecessor in 2001, would hasten their ascent to power. The opposition could not be more wrong. In mature democracies worldwide, crisis and national tragedy have been a time for political rivals to unite for the good of a nation. It is a time to take off political blinkers and don nationalistic caps. There are moments at which opposition parties must rejoice at the plight of a government – this is not one of them. The only way to defeat terrorism is by standing united and this is exactly what Sri Lanka lacks.
Indeed, there is a tragedy greater than what occurred in Katunayake last week. In fact, some might say it was greater than the devastation of 2001. Our supreme tragedy is that our leaders do not have ‘national’ in their lexicon; that they cannot, no matter how dire the need, put the country first.

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‘Flying Tigers’ add intensity to Eelam war

The most damning for Colombo was perhaps the lukewarm response it received from the diplomatic community in the city and from friendly countries. Their silence to what was a virtual announcement by the LTTE that theirs was the only terrorist group in the entire world with their own air strike capability, was deafening

If those in the government thought that the sky was the limit because of the launch of the new budget air line Mihin Air, they were in for a rude shock last week: the attack on the Katunayake Air Force base by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) startled the government, the Armed Forces as well the average citizen.
It was not so much the damage caused by the attack that jolted the powers that be. It is the realisation that Eelam War IV will take a dramatic and decisive turn with the LTTE acquiring air strike capabilities.
It has been known for quite a few years that the Tigers were aiming to consolidate an Air Force and the building of a runway at Iranamadu was only just one indication of this intention. However, the graduation from a fledgling force to an organisation that now has the resources to fly aircraft when it so desires appears to be too much, too soon.
What it does to the Eelam equation is to increase the vulnerability of the South to LTTE attacks. At least in theory, the LTTE will now be able to attempt bombing missions anywhere in the country and any security measures short of shooting down suspicious aircraft-easier said than done-will appear redundant.
This was underscored by none other than National Heritage Minister Anura Bandaranaike who wrote to Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara claiming that Parliament would now be a prime target of the terrorists. Even among the general public they can bomb us anywhere at anytime now type of sentiment was seen in no small measure.
Interestingly, while the Tigers demonstrated their air power, a mini-propaganda battle was also being carried out. The LTTE had no hesitation in claiming responsibility for the attacks. In fact, the terrorists were quite proud of their achievement. Pro-LTTE websites were quick to publish photographs of their crew with Tiger Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, shown in a rarely seen smiling and relaxed mood.
On the government side though, news was hard to come by. Media coverage of the incident was restricted to hospital shots-the routine pictures of the wounded being attended to at the Negombo and Colombo hospitals. There was no press or television reporting of the events within the Katunayake Air Force base.
It is a moot point as to whether this was the best option to pursue. The news blackout of the actual scene of the attacks led to wild speculation about the degree of damage caused by the attacks, which the LTTE capitalised on by saying forty per cent of the striking capability of the Air Force had been destabilised which appeared to be a gross exaggeration anyway.
Moreover, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, the official overseers of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was not granted permission to visit the site of the incidents. The Armed Forces we are certain have good reasons for their decisions but nevertheless there was a sense that even if the ground situation was on an even keel, the propaganda war was being lost.
Of course, the aerial attacks on Katunayake were followed by the usual verbal pyrotechnics in the southern political theatre. The opposition United National Party (UNP) and its leader Ranil Wickremasinghe wanted Parliament summoned to discuss the incident only to be told by a minister that Parliament cannot be summoned every time a bomb explodes, a statement which hints that more attacks of this nature could be expected!
The UNP was also snubbed by the ruling party when they were not invited for an all party meeting but President Mahinda Rajapaksa has since made several public speeches where he has alluded to the attacks and assured his countrymen that if more attacks were to materialise, they would be dealt with severely.
But most damning for Colombo was perhaps the lukewarm response it received from the diplomatic community in the city and from friendly countries. Their silence to what was a virtual announcement by the LTTE that theirs was the only terrorist group in the entire world with their own air strike capability, was deafening.
Last weeks incident at Katunayake was certainly no Nine-Eleven. But in principle, it had equal if not greater significance. The Al-Qaeda terrorists had to commandeer commercial aircraft for the attacks they launched in America. And here was an even more ruthless terrorist group brazenly demonstrating that it had its own aircraft capable of launching attacks at the behest of the whims and fancies of Velupillai Prabhakaran.
And yet, none of the major international players dared speak up to voice condemnation of the event. Even United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon could only summon barely enough courage to state what he has been saying yet again-that both parties to the conflict should attempt reconciliation through negotiation!
Big Brother India was icily silent, dwelling instead on the technicalities of the radar system at Katunayake and peace broker Norway said nothing at all. If those in the Foreign Office in Colombo have been surprised at this tepid response from its international brethren, it hasn’t so far made its displeasure known.
The end result of last week’s attack would be to enhance Colombo’s resolve to deal with the Tigers militarily rather than at the negotiating table. Then the question is whether this is what Velupillai Prabhakaran really and desperately desires.
Only time will tell whether the Katunayake flight was a flash in the pan for the LTTE or whether it has the capability for creating more mayhem. But one fact is now certain: it may have been one short flight for a few terrorists, but it is also a gigantic stride in the intensity of Eelam War IV.

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Batticaloa: Where the fish don’t sing no more

Vasanthi Nirmalan (34), a government teacher, also from Mutur, says she and her family will never return to Mutur until normalcy is restored.
“We have suffered enough. We can’t suffer anymore. The government must give us an assurance that we could settle down peacefully in our own land. Till then we will not return,” she observed.

Text and pictures by Wilson Gnanadass from Batticaloa
Vakarai is gradually limping back to normalcy. Tens and thousands of people, who became refugees overnight, after government troops forced them to flee the LTTE areas, are now relieved.
They do not hear the sound of bombs and Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRL) anymore. Quietly spending their time in government camps, reflecting on incidents of the recent past.
The government’s ultimate aim is to fully rehabilitate Vakarai and make it a model village, for the benefit of the people.
Government troops on the other hand, are effectively handling the sudden influx of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
Unlike in the past, the refugees have little complaints against the conduct of the armed forces, with more than a few exceptions, of course.
However, their anger is against the government’s grandiose pronouncement that 95% of the Batticaloa district is liberated. Batticaloa residents view this statement as a gross exaggeration. But there is an element of truth in the government’s claim, as most of the uncleared areas have been captured by government troops.
Bare lands may be liberated but, question is, whether the people have been liberated from their suffering.
If the IDPs in Vakarai are able to heave a sigh of relief, not everybody in the district was able to do so, especially, not those in Batticaloa town.
Lack of political leadership
Batticaloa now is devoid of political leadership. This situation may have arisen after the brutal assassination of former TNA MP Joseph Pararajasingham. The residents sadly miss the Pararajasingham duo even today, saying that political leadership in the district died with his demise.
Batticaloa district Members of Parliament, D. Ariyanethiran, K. Thanngeswari, T. Kanagasabai, and S. Tiyanandamoorthy have been strictly warned by Karuna to resign from their parliamentary seats. In his latest warning, Karuna has said that these members have done little to help the influx of refugees, hence, their presence is of no use.
The civilians of Batticaloa too echoed sentiments similar to those of Karuna, saying that the MPs had shown scant concern to their suffering.
Effects of war on Batti town
The town, unusually, was replete with the sounds of aerial bombardments, though, with less military checks. At regular intervals the town reverberated to the firing of artillery shells. The continuous bombing targeted the uncleared areas.
Civilians concerned of this development said that this situation could change the topography of Batticaloa soon, if both the government troops and the LTTE continued to fight with no respite.
They were of the view that the war perhaps, could even have an impact on the demography, if no meaningful steps were taken forthwith, to stop fighting and return to negotiations.
Already, 38% of the Batticaloa population, according to government statistics, are IDPs, with the figure likely to swell and by the prolongation of the war.
Residents caught in between LTTE controlled areas and the army bases are not certain when they too would be forced to flee their homes and become refugees.
Uncertainty, coupled with tension, certainly gives the town and its suburbs an eerie ambience.
From the time government troops decided to take control of Vakarai, Batticaloa residents have been facing untold hardship.
They suffer silently, fearing the warring parties, with Karuna compounding those fears.
Traders paying taxes to the government, are now compelled to pay taxes to the ‘Karuna’ group as well. Notwithstanding the soaring cost of living. They are unable to desist from paying the ‘Karuna’ group because it enjoys government patronage.
At present 120,000 people are IDPs and are languishing in makeshift camps in the suburbs of Batticaloa.
Plight of IDPs
The plight of the IDPs is a matter of serious concern as, they continue to face harassment from the armed troops and other paramilitary groups as well.
In the early hours of March 15, the Special Task Force (STF) arrested two civilians at the Pattirippu bridge in Kaluwanchikudi. The two civilians Ganeshalingam Chandrakumar (17), a student from Periyapurathivu and Govindasamy Thavarajah (32) from Kovilpurathivu, were travelling from the LTTE controlled area towards the army controlled area, when they were arrested. Later, on March 19, following a clash between the army and the LTTE at Wellaweli, the military reported killing four LTTE cadres.
However, out of the four bodies claimed to be LTTE cadres, two were identified as Chandrakumar (17) and Thavarajah (32). Aid workers confirmed that these two were the ones arrested by the STF on March 15.
The LTTE, subsequently, refused to accept the bodies saying they were not their cadres.
Prior to this incident, three young IDPs had allegedly been abducted by the ‘Karuna, group, according to a complaint filed by the parents of the abductees.
Nandagopal Nadanaruban (14), Rasaratnam Pirapakaran (16) and Selvarajah Danuseelan (14) were forced to flee Mavadichanai in Mutur, along with thousands of other refugees.
They had been living at the Kirimuthu IDP camp in Batticaloa. On March 9, the three boys had been relaxing on the roadside after their midday meal, when a group claiming to belong to the TMVP had taken them away.
Consequently, the parents had lodged an entry with the Human Rights Commission in Batticaloa, but to no avail.
These unexpected developments terrorise the refugees further.
Back in the camps situated in Batticala, the refugees are given two kilos of flour, two kilos of rice, half-a-kilo of dhal and one kilo of sugar every 15 days. The refugees complain that these quantities are insufficient. They point out that the government is preventing some of the INGOs and NGOs from helping them with the food supply.
“When we ask the NGOs for food, they say that the government does not permit them to give any food,” refugees from Sahira IDP camp in Vettukadu said.
These people were displaced from Mutur and brought to Batticaloa on August 22, 2006. Yet, according to the refugees, to date, neither the Government Agent nor the MPs of the area, have visited them.
According to Kandiah, an IDP from Mutur, the army had taken nearly 1,500 people from the camp to the north, promising to resettle them in their homes.
“But, we know that these people have still not arrived at their homes. We also know that the army took them by force and left them in unknown places. This worries us,” he said.
He also said that the belongings of the Mutur residents, now IDPs in Batticaloa, had been looted and no way to regain them, even if the IDPs were sent back to Mutur.
Vasanthi Nirmalan (34), a government teacher, also from Mutur, says she and her family will never return to Mutur until normalcy is restored.
“We have suffered enough. We can’t suffer anymore. The government must give us an assurance that we could settle down peacefully in our own land. Till then we will not return,” she observed.
Refugees flee to India
Unable to bear the suffering, some refugees have opted to flee to neighbouring India for safety.
Thavamanidevi (44) is a mother of three. Today, she laments that she has lost contact with her eldest son, who courageously took off with his family to India last October,.
“We still do not know of their plight. When we told him not to go, he told us if he stayed here, he would either be killed by the armed forces or, be abducted by the paramilitary. Hence, the only alternative is for him to get out of the country,” she said.
Like her, Pakkiawathy (40) too worries about her sister’s plight, since she has not heard from her sister about her arrival and safety, after she fled to India last year with her four children.
“This is a constant headache for me and my other family members. Why can’t we have peace in Sri Lanka, since she has not heard from her sister about her arrival and safety so that we all can live here happily,” she queried.
According to reports submitted to the local political office in Batticaloa on March 7, 103 families (777 people) from Batticaloa refugee camps were forcibly taken to Vakarai, by the security forces.
On March 13, about 1,106 people from the Palachcholai refugee camp in Siththandi, were taken in 30 buses to Kilivetty in Trincomalee, by the security forces.
On March 14, again, the security forces took about 120 people in two busses from Valachchenai to Mutur.
Disappointed
By and large, the refugees are disappointed with their own political leaders. They said that when they were asked to leave their homes without any prior notice, the politicians who are supposed to represent them in Parliament, were helpless.
Even the ‘Karuna’ faction or the LTTE did nothing to prevent a section of the security forces drom carting away their goods,.
They pointed out that the government, the LTTE and the ‘Karuna’ faction were not sincere about the welfare of the IDPs, they were fighting only for their own survival.
Muslim Help
In the backdrop of this scenario, a section of the Muslim community is rising to the occasion, to lend a helping hand to the Tamil refugees. There is a sudden surge of compassion and understanding between these two communities as a result of this.
The campaign to help the Tamil refugees is spearheaded by K.M.M. Kaleel, a leading trader from Kathankudi. He is also the Coordinator of the Muslim Traders’ Association in Batticaloa.
Kaleel told The Nation that it was ‘cheap politics’ in the country that divided communities. If the affected communities so desired, they could ignore the politics and shake hands.
He said he asked every Muslim to contribute Rs.100 to help the IDPs. He said, to date, the Muslims have collected a sum of Rs. 1.7 million.
10,000 food parcels per day, have been distributed to the IDPs for five consecutive days. According to Kaleel, 750 kilos of fish had been cooked every day to feed the Tamil IDPs.
He also said that Muslim youths were running two camps at Arayampathu and Karbala in the Batticaloa district to look after the Tamil refugees.
He further added that Risla Media World and All Ceylon Jamath Islamic Organisation in Kathankudi were conducting an ongoing medical camp for the IDPs.
He said that for the first time his organization has established a rapport with the Hindu Association in Batticaloa, and that both organisations were helping the IDPs.
Kaleel pointed out that the language of the Muslims in the east was Tamil, hence, they cannot be separated from the Tamils who also spoke Tamil. “I do not see any difference between the Tamils and the Muslims. Only our religion is different. So why can’t we live together,” he questioned.
First-hand experience of MBRL
Sunday, March 24 was like any other day. The sky was clear, the atmosphere dark. Silence pervaded the city of Batticaloa, except for the sound of random shell attacks.
The residents, quite used to the sounds of war, retired for the night. Monday, March 25, 3.15 a.m. Suddenly, Batticaloa town was rocked by a barrage from MBRLs. Buildings and houses shook to their foundations.
Many were thrown out of their beds. Those living near Weber Stadium could view the volume of fire emerging from the MBRL. There were seven in a row and at that moment three to four rows were fired in one go.
Some of the windows of the houses nearby were shattered.
Though it was dark the rockets fired from the stadium lit the whole town.
The residents awoke in shock and awe and lay still. Cries of Children crying in fear was heard just once. Even stray dogs, which usually barked at sounds in the nights, were silent.
Within seconds the firing stopped, while a flash lingered for a few more minutes at the base where the MBRLs were fired from, until the city regained its nightly silence.
Soon, it became known that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) Air Force had, for the first time, carried out an air raid on the Sri Lanka Air Force base in Katunayake.
To the average citizens of Batticaloa that was the end of their sleep. Telephones started ringing. People started to inquire from each other to find out who was dead and who was alive.
Batti then and now
Batticaloa, once considered the land of the ‘Singing Fish’, today, is a war torn city.
Two decades ago, Passikkuda attracted thousands of foreign and local tourists. Calm seas and clean beaches were reasons for the outsiders to throng the east. The economy of the eastern capital depended on beaches and coconuts. Unfortunately, today, the same beaches and even the coconut estates, are laden with landmines.
The war that slowly moved towards the east, especially, after Karuna defected from the LTTE, has desecrated the pristine beauty of Batticaloa.
The peace loving people of Batticalao yearn for peace. They wonder whether Mahinda Chinthana could usher in that peace.

The campaign by the Muslims to help the Tamil refugees is spearheaded by K.M.M. Kaleel, a leading trader from Kathankudi. He is also the Coordinator of the Muslim Traders’ Association in Batticaloa.
Kaleel told The Nation that it was ‘cheap politics’ in the country that divided communities. If the affected communities so desired, they could ignore the politics and shake hands.
Kaleel pointed out that the language of the Muslims in the east was Tamil, hence, they cannot be separated from the Tamils who also spoke Tamil. “I do not see any difference between the Tamils and the Muslims. Only our religion is different. So why can’t we live together,” he questioned.

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Minister of Resettlement & Disaster Relief
Services,
Rishard Badurdeen

The minister conceded forceful resettlement, adding that this had been brought under control.
“Now it has stopped. We have undertaken the task of resettling the people. This incident took place when the influx of refugees could not be handled by the government forces.
“Now our ministry officials are doing this. We will not allow this to happen again. We have given the people the assurance that they will be taken back to their own homes.
“We are sending enough food through the Government Agent. We are also in touch with the international community seeking help to feed the IDPs.”

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Government Agent, Batticaloa ,
S. Arumainayagam

The Government Agent too told The Nation that there was no forcible resettlement taking place at present.
He said that it did take place at one point but, after the government came to be aware of it, the situation was brought under control.
“I have given clear instructions that there should not be any forcible resettlement. In fact, my officers are working round the clock to ensure the refugees are protected,” he said.

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