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Military Matters


Next Friday (April 25) would mark the second anniversary of the assassination attempt on Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. In an ironic twist, two years after LTTE’s assassination attempt on the army chief, the Norwegian facilitators, breaking their long silence after the government threw over-board Oslo’s baby - the ceasefire agreement- in January, are now appealing to India to mediate between the two parties

 Sinhala and Hindu New Year passed off relatively peacefully amidst heightened security throughout the country. Not only did the guns go silent, the sound of fire crackers was considerably less, restricting the number of injuries to a couple this year.

Most Tamils and Sinhalese were in no mood to celebrate the New Year as the war intensified and victims on both sides multiplied, even as the cost of living soared and sapped the communities beyond existence.

Those who escaped the war, were consumed by the kitchen war, and for some, it was war on both fronts.
The military, which has been on a prolonged offensive, shifted gear, got into a defensive mode. During previous phases of Eelam War and to herald a new one, the LTTE would execute a major strike during the month of April.

Next Friday (April 25) would mark the second anniversary of the assassination attempt on Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. If not a declaration of war, this single act was a clear indication of the LTTE’s intentions, that it was abandoning the peace process and keen to resume hostilities.

Not willing to take this crass act of terrorism lying low, the government conducted several sorties over pre-identified LTTE targets in Tiger-controlled areas, signalling it was ready for war.

This virtual declaration of war was just two months after the first round of Geneva Talks, with the new dispensation having failed to bear fruit, and with each side blaming the other.

In an ironic twist, two years after LTTE’s assassination attempt on the Army Chief, the Norwegian facilitators, breaking their long silence after the government threw over-board Oslo’s baby- the ceasefire agreement- in January, are now appealing to India to mediate between the two parties, to have them return to the peace table.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has reportedly appealed to the Union Government to push for negotiations between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE.

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary since the LTTE withdrew from the peace table on April 21, 2003 during the previous UNF regime. Will it come back to the table of the UPFA regime after two years of brutal war? If it does, the LTTE would have learnt the bitter lesson that it cannot defeat the Sri Lankan military. In fact, the LTTE began negotiations with the UNF government in a big way, after a series of victories over the military culminating in the daring attack on the Katunayake International Airport and the adjacent Sri Lanka Air Force Base on July 24, 2001.

The international war on terror after the September 11, 2001 Twin Tower attack may have been another reason for the LTTE to enter into negotiations. Throughout the talks, the LTTE was biding time, waiting to slip out, but the international community almost forcibly upheld the peace process, even after the LTTE withdrew from talks temporarily.

The LTTE, which unofficially declared war against the new hawkish government, got the works and fireworks in ample measure.
At last, it is hoped the realisation has dawned on the LTTE that it cannot defeat the military.

Or is it that the LTTE, which is fighting with its back to the wall, is keen on a respite to re-group and re-arm? The previous UNP-led government came to the realisation that it cannot defeat the LTTE, and therefore settled for talks. Thinking that it could defeat the LTTE easily, the SLFP-led government undertook the war, but will soon learn the bitter lesson that the war cannot be won, and the fall out of the prolonged war could defeat the administration.

It was Norwegian’s Special Envoy to Sri Lanka, Hanssen Bauer, who made an appeal for Indian mediation after participating at a two-day conference in Oslo organised by the Art of Living Foundation attended by Indian spiritual guru Sri Ravi Shankar, and influential individuals from Sri Lanka, India, Europe and Switzerland.

Attending the conference were members of the European Parliament Erikka Mann and Nirajan Devadittiya, who have close links with the current Lankan Administration and Sri Lanka’s Peace Secretariat Chief Dr. Rajiva Wjesinghe, UNP MP Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena, Ven. Madhuluvave Sobitha Nayaka Thera, India’s MDMK chief Vaiko who has contacts with the LTTE and Colin Archer of the International Peace Bureau (Switzerland).

It was in Geneva, Switzerland that the second round of peace talks did not get off the ground on October 28, despite LTTE attending. This was because its chief negotiator S.P.Thamilselvan, demanded the opening the A9 Road, the highway of death, before the talks commenced.

As it stands, Thamilselvan was killed by a SLAF air-raid on November 2, 2007 and Anton Balasingham the LTTE chief negotiator, during the UNF talks died earlier that year.

Since the UPFA came to office in April 2004, this Administration has lost three prominent Tamils - former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2005, Deputy Peace Secretariat Chief Kethesh Loganathan in 2006 and more recently, the Chief Government Whip Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa narrowly escaped assassination on December 1, 2006.

The UNP has lost the cream of its leadership including President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake.

India lost a former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose daughter, Priyanka Vadra, created a flutter when she visited in a Vellore jail LTTE operative Nalini Sriharan, one of the conspirators in her father’s assassination.

The move has sent shockwaves in Sri Lanka that the Chairperson of India’s ruling alliance, Sonia Gandhi’s daughter was willing to bury the hatchet, despite successive Indian Governments refusing to absolve the LTTE of its crime. She, however, insisted that it was a private visit on her own initiative.

With the Indian elections not far off, the Congress led by Sonia Gandhi would not want to alienate Tamil voters sympathetic towards fellow Tamils across the Palk Strait. It is likely that as a clear majority by any single party is being ruled out, the Congress party would like to keep its constituent parties on board, perhaps to contest as a group, or form the coalition after the elections.

So far, the Congress party has not responded to the Nationalist Congress Party President Sharad Pawar’s proposal for the ruling United Progressive Alliance to contest as a group.

Sri Lanka has been alienating itself from the western world as it banked on support from the Asian region. It would not be in Sri Lanka’s interest to see India tilt itself towards the LTTE even as the organisation is gradually gaining a toe hold in Tamil Nadu, as evident from the arrests made recently.

It is suspected that the LTTE unloaded a shipment of arms and ammunition coming across the Indian Ocean recently.
It must be remembered that had the ten ships carrying arms and ammunition not been destroyed over the past five years, the LTTE would have been placed in a stronger military position. While the Navy did a good job destroying the ships, the intelligence provided mainly by India, was also vital.

Monitoring the large porous southern Indian border is no easy task, and if the Indian authorities turn a blind eye, the Tigers would stand to gain. If the LTTE is able to regain the sympathy of the multi-million Tamil population in Tamil Nadu, this would be a huge advantage to the organisation. This would offset whatever military support the country receives, in terms of arms and ammunition, from Pakistan and China.

On the battlefront, the realisation is soon dawning on the powers that be, that a military solution was not as imminent as envisaged. Also, the international community, including India, has warned that a military solution is not the answer to a political problem. Weakening the LTTE to bring it to the negotiating table is however tacitly approved by the international community, including India.

Judging by the time taken to almost wrest control of Madhu, given the stiff resistance by the Tigers, the goal of the military to reach Vidatilativu would take another three months or so. Securing Vidatilativu alone may not be sufficient, and the military would have to go the whole hog right up to Pooneryn. To secure the entire western coast right up to Pooneryn which is a good 50 km, it would take an additional nine months to an year.

Meanwhile, four generals are due to retire in the next nine months, starting from Major General Upali Edirisinghe who turns 55 in August this year, two years since the commencement of Eelam War IV. The Army’s No. 2, Commandant of the Volunteer Force, Major General Lawrence Fernando and Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Major General G.A. Chandrasiri will turn 55 in January, 2009, while the No. 3 Chief of Staff, Major General Nissanka Wijesinghe retires in February, next year.

The current operation to secure the western coast must be viewed from the standpoint of “Operation Jaya Sikuru” or ‘Victory Assured’. Though the longest single military operation, that was the most costly in terms of men and material, it had to be abandoned.

At the time when the Jaya Sikuru operation to wrest control of the A 9 Road was on, the LTTE offered little resistance in Mannar, as the Tigers knew the exact goal of the military: to open an alternative route to Jaffna. The security forces easily wrested control over the Wanni region. But this time, the Tigers are digging in the Wanni, as they know the goal of the military: to wrest control of the western coast to cut off supplies to the Tigers from that side of the Indian Ocean. The other motive is to destroy LTTE artillery gun positions at the tip of Pooneryn that has a range up to Palaly. There is also the politico-military goal of resuming the boat service from Sangupiddy to the Jaffna peninsula.

Merely securing the coast is not enough; a good two divisions would be required to defend the entire coast line from the landmass if the Tigers withdraw interior and begin to attack.

Can the military afford that commitment? There is also the Weli Oya front that has been opened possibly to divide the LTTE’s attention. Unlike during Jaya Sikuru , where the LTTE did not resist army advancement west of Vavuniya and Mannar, the Tigers cannot afford to ignore the army’s advance in Weli Oya, as the Tiger heartland Mullaitivu would be exposed. Also, it could be possible that the military is undertaking an ambitious campaign to seal off both coasts simultaneously.

It could possibly be a strategy to split the Tigers who are already over-stretched and having severe manpower problems. As we said last week, the Tigers are involved in forcible conscription, much to the chagrin of the civilians, who are gradually slipping out of uncleared areas.

Meanwhile, the defence Ministry revealed yesterday that three Tiger ‘policemen’ who deserted the organization confessed to troops that they had shunned LTTE ‘police duties’ on several occasions, but the LTTE had repeatedly arrested them and confined them to the Kanagapura prison in Kilinochchi where they had befriended one another.

The three LTTE deserters named are Amala Sumanyan, 26, Rathnakumar Sadeesh, 23 and Sebastian Pillai Arulraj,26. Tiger leaders unlocked them from prison on March 31 and they made their way to the north of Mannar across dense jungles with more 34 “LTTE policemen,” including three for deployment for LTTE duties, the media centre for national security reported.
The attrition war resumed after a brief respite but in terms of area secured, it is minimal.

Fresh fighting in the north, Wanni and Weli Oya on Friday resulted in 21 Tigers killed. In Jaffna, army infantrymen along with their specialised mechanised infantry men, embarked on series of attacks on LTTE defences in the Muhamalai and Eluthumaduwal, the defence ministry reported.

In the Wanni theatre, troops marching ahead had several clashes with Tiger cadres in the Thachchanamaruthamadu, and Chinnavalayankaddu areas killing 11. In Mannar, troops attacked Tiger bunkers in the Manipuilukulam, and Minukkad areas killing six Tigers and destroying 5 LTTE bunkers. In Alankulama troops killed three Tigers while snipers deployed in the Malikaittidal and Minnukkad area reported shooting down three more LTTE cadres.

On the Welioya front, troops had several confrontations in the Kokkutuduval, Janakapura North and Kriibbanwava North areas on Friday killing one LTTE cadre and injuring three more. The military admitted three deaths in these operations where there was no independent verification of the casualty figures.

The military cannot attribute the slow progress due to indirect fire, booby traps and IEDs. In any conventional war, one has to expect a minefield, and the military would have to assault across the minefield allowing a few percentage points of casualties.
The Navy and the Air Force have done well to cripple the Tigers destroying their assets in sea and land.

For instance yesterday, based on a tip off from a naval patrol, the Air Force had a reconnaissance aircraft airborne over the south of the Mullaitivu lagoon. After the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) confirmed that there were three fast Tiger craft fitted with guns on the shore, fighter jets were used to destroy the boats last evening. while the Army has made headway and needs to carry its operations to a logical conclusion, even if it means losing more casualties. But, could the LTTE, which is a terrorist and guerilla outfit with conventional capabilities be fully defeated? There seems to be a trend of higher casualties suffered by the troops until and even after the weather gods played havoc. Will the military continue its thrust or play safe as one miscalculation could undermine its achievements? Or will the government decide that its success should now be carried forward to the negotiating table with greater bargaining power than in 2002, after a series of military reversals?

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Catholic Bishop’s Conference clarifies Madhu statue issue

The revered Madhu statue continued to be the centre of focus for successive weeks, with this week being no exception.
The latest developments suggest that the Administrator of the Madhu Shrine Fr. Emilianus Pillai is keen to bring back the statue to its original place.

He has appealed to both parties for a written guarantee to enable him to bring back the statue to Madhu. So effectively, the LTTE would have to vacate the church premises and compound, while the military has to refrain from attacks in an around the church.

Catholic priests from the Mannar diocese met the LTTE to seek this guarantee, and church authorities were scheduled to meet the military for the same purpose, even though the government has been sounded off.

Meanwhile, efforts by the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Italy Hemantha Warnakulasuriya to make representations to the Vatican, to influence the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, proved futile. The veteran lawyer and former President BASL was politely told that it was a matter for the local church to decide.

The Bishop’s Conference of Sri Lanka convened an emergency meeting in Kandy and issued the following statement:
“The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Sri Lanka is deeply concerned about the misinterpretations and unfounded speculations that appeared in some media, regarding the removal of the venerated statue of Our Lady of Madhu to the church in Thevanpiddy.
Therefore we feel it our duty to clarify matters as follows:

1. Madhu is a shrine so declared according to the Pilgrimages Ordinance as published in the Government Gazette notification No. 185 of 1982.03.19. Therefore the Madhu Shrine and the camp area fall under the Pilgrimages Ordinance.

2
. As the shrine and the area around it are within the so-called “Uncleared Area” the statue of Our Lady of Madhu was already there, in the LTTE controlled area.

3. As it is well known the sacred area of the Madhu camp has presently become a battlefield between the government Forces and the LTTE.

4. With the escalation of war in the area, shells began to fall not only on the camp area but also in the premises of the Shrine and the residence of the priests.

5. The situation has worsened in the recent past and all the remaining lay workers, religious sisters and priests were forced to seek shelter in bunkers and finally flee to save their lives.

6. Before doing so they decided, with the approval of the Bishop of Mannar, to take the statue along with them to the closest functionally available church which is Thevanpiddy. As a last resort, they had taken this decision of their own free will, and not under compulsion, or at the request of the LTTE or any other as viciously reported in some media.

7. The statue has been moved out temporarily to the church in Thevanpiddy which alone has a Catholic community around it. All other parishes in the uncleared area of the district of Mannar are presently deserted by the people due to security reasons. It is to be noted that the displaced people of these deserted parishes numbering over 24,000 live in this area. The statue is, therefore, enshrined temporarily in the said church and will be brought back to the hallowed Madhu Shrine at the first opportunity of safety.

8. We deplore the malicious attribution of motives and the unwarranted interpretations given to this simple and inevitable course of action, which was due solely to the exigencies of the given situation. We hope that the above facts will clear the unfounded allegations and prejudices.

****