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 Post subject: Siege of Jaffna on the cards
 Post Posted: Sat Jan 07, 2006 4:01 pm 
Siege of Jaffna on the cards

@ Sunday Times / Sunday, January 01, 2006

There were mixed feelings for Major T.A. Amith of the Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) serving in Jaffna when a message arrived that an informant wanted to meet him that Saturday December 24.

Though a good source, doubts had arisen over the young man's bona fides. With the rise in Tiger guerrilla violence in Jaffna, was this a trap to lure him in? Or, by turning the request down, was the DMI going to lose out on some vital information? With the support of his men, Maj. Amith prepared for both.

By nightfall he was in a remote area of Jaffna town. Instead of meeting the informant, he met with gunfire. A few minutes later five had died. Major Amith and a soldier were injured. The military spokesman in Colombo declared those killed were five guerrillas. But the Tamilnet web site said they were civilians. Other sources told The Sunday Times one was a watcher of a nearby school and another who had worked in a motor garage. The bodies of the remaining three were claimed from the Jaffna hospital morgue by next of kin from the Wanni suggesting they were guerrilla cadres.

But a more disturbing message to the security forces was to come from another event that followed. A Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter landed at the Duraiappah Stadium. They were to pick up injured Major Amith and his soldier colleague to be flown to Colombo for treatment. The chopper was on the ground when security authorities intercepted a radio conversation.

Tiger guerrilla operatives who were evidently observing the helicopter touch-down spoke to a base suspected to be in Kilinochchi. A guerrilla asked whether to shoot down the helicopter. "No! Now that the incident has taken place, let them leave," came the answer in Tamil. How was he planning to shoot it down? It was almost impossible with small arms fire for the stadium and the adjoining areas were ringed by armed soldiers.

That discounted the possibility of even a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) being fired. Hence senior security officials are worried whether the guerrillas had smuggled surface-to-air missiles into the peninsula. Not surprising when hand grenades, small arms and remote controlled claymore fragmentation mines have entered the security-forces-controlled area in large quantities despite the ceasefire. They were now being used not only by the guerrillas but by their civilian front organisations too.

Even if the reality has not dawned sufficiently well in Colombo's defence establishment, the fact that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is embarking on plans to lay siege on the northern capital of Jaffna is slowly but surely unfolding. From last Tuesday, they had ensured the closure of all Government institutions. If the Kachcheri or the District Secretariat remained open, hardly anyone had reported to work with the exception of Government Agent K. Ganesh.

Banks have also remained closed since Tuesday, bringing business and economic activity in the bustling northern capital to a new low. The flow of goods to the peninsula has slowed down. Jaffna traders complained that their counterparts in Colombo were no longer accepting their cheques as payment due to closure of banks. Hence, there was a reduction in the goods that arrive in Jaffna. Consequently, there have been increases in prices of some goods and fears of shortages due to stockpiling.

There has been stepped up military preparations by Tiger guerrillas. This week, "Maveerar" families or those who have "contributed" a member or more from a family to the LTTE cause have been asked to leave the peninsula and return to Wanni. By yesterday, at least a hundred families have heeded the directive, crossed the Muhamalai check point and entered guerrilla-dominated areas. This is said to be a move to prevent attacks or reprisals on them by the armed forces.

Civilians who have been provided military training have been told to be available at pre-designated points, beginning today. Those who did not receive hand grenades or weapons were being issued with ones. They have been ordered to attack members of the armed forces or the police whenever they find them as easy targets. Those living around some of the small armed forces camps in the area have been told to be prepared to vacate at short notice. Large stocks of explosives have been smuggled into Chavakachcheri area.

Some senior guerrilla cadres from the East have been assigned tasks and ordered to move into the peninsula. How these preparations will come to play beginning today remains largely a puzzle for the security and defence establishment in Colombo. But paralysing the working of state establishments and banks in the peninsula is no doubt the beginning of a civil disobedience campaign. And that has all the signs of escalation.

There are reports of moves to force the civilians, who are in most instances being controlled by front organisations of the LTTE, not to pay taxes and disregard all Government directives or activity. Courts have ceased to function causing a deep vacuum in law enforcement activity by the Police. It is in this backdrop that a build up towards escalation of violence is taking place.

This week has not been different from the previous few. Grenade-throwing activity has continued. On Friday night, six soldiers were injured in a grenade attack on the headquarters of the Army's 514 Brigade at Varani, three kilometres north of Kodikamam. Last Friday, two soldiers were injured when unidentified persons fired at a patrol close to Kandaramadam junction. Earlier in the week, the Navy discovered two remote controlled claymore mines in Mannar. One was on the wall of the Bishop's House. Three other similar mines were discovered by the Army along the Mannar-Medawachchiya Road. But the LTTE denied it had placed such mines and declared the claims were a deception. But that claim was unusual since the guerrillas had denied responsibility for the recent wave of incidents and blamed it on civilian groups.

Continued assaults on the armed forces and police personnel, it is quite clear, seem the primary objective of the Tiger guerrillas and their front organisations. It is also equally clear that such attacks are intended to draw out the armed forces into retaliation. Thus a major assault on troops would trigger a major retaliatory strike. Such a move can signal the dawn of Eelam War IV notwithstanding the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002. The CFA provides for either side to give two week's notice of their intention to abrogate. But that appears to be inconsequential.

This eventuality can lead to many scenarios. One is a possible closure of the A-Nine (A-9) Jaffna-Kandy highway though it would be an economic blow to the LTTE. Their "check-points" at Omanthai (north of Vavuniya) and Muhamalai (south of Jaffna) generate an average of Rs 20 million rupees by way of "taxes." per day Already a drop in movement of goods has reduced this revenue marginally. In the event of a rise in hostilities, a guerrilla move to shut it down cannot be discounted.

Talking of the revenue from "taxes", it is paradoxical that the Government of Sri Lanka also contributes indirectly. This is after the former United National Front (UNF) Government chose to transport fuel to civilians and troops in Jaffna via this highway. The successful contractor who won the bid from state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation has included such "taxes" in their transport costs. Earlier, fuel supplies to Jaffna peninsula were moved in tankers from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai. If supplies are interrupted by the highway closure, troops in the peninsula have to guard their fuel installations that will have limited stockpiles.

Replenishment of fuel stocks in a hurry in such an eventuality could be possible only from the port of Trincomalee. It is here that a very critical factor - the surrounding of Tiger guerrilla camps around Trincomalee, particularly south of the harbour area - becomes relevant. This was revealed in The Sunday Times (Situation Report - August 3 2003). Besides these camps, the guerrillas are known to have sited mortar (and even artillery) positions in the Sampur area that overlooks the harbour mouth. (The Sunday Times - Situation Report - July 25, 2004). Thus not only fuel movements, but also reinforcements and supplies by sea would face a serious threat. Only a limited number of troops and supplies could be moved to Jaffna by the Air Force in view of scant resources. Compounding this situation further are the repairs now being carried out on the runway in Palaly.

Thus the closure of the A-9 highway and immobilising the Trincomalee harbour can be potential threats that can trap some 45,000 troops and policemen in the Jaffna peninsula. This critical aspect has been highlighted many a time in The Sunday Times. One of the reasons why former President Kumaratunga took over the defence portfolio from then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe's Government in November 2003 related to the guerrilla build-up around Trincomalee. Though she then declared national security was gravely endangered, thereafter she told a meeting of the National Security Council that reports of a build-up around Trincomalee harbour were not true. Hence, nothing was done. This is despite a team from the United States Army's Pacific Command affirming in a detailed report that such a threat existed.

Sections of the defence and security establishment still argue that an escalation of hostilities is not likely in view of the ongoing ceasefire. But the events that followed the claymore mine attack in Mannar on December 23 answers their concerns.

Immediately after the incident, President Mahinda Rajapakse chaired two meetings of the National Security Council on the same day. Temple Trees. One of the matters discussed was whether Prime Minister,Ratnasiri Wickremanayake should address the nation. This was to apprise Sri Lankans of the wave of attacks launched by the guerrillas. It was later decided that instead he should address envoys of the donor co-chairs to the peace process. Their good offices were sought to ascertain from the LTTE whether they were still committed to the Ceasefire Agreement and, if so, to obtain a date for the resumption of talks.

Four envoys -Julian Wilson (Head of Delegation, European Union), Stephen Evans (High Commissioner for the UK), Akio Suda (Ambassador for Japan) and Oddvar Laegreid (acting Ambassador for Norway) - flew to Kilinochchi to meet guerrilla Political Wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan on December 24. The United States, a member of the donor co-chairs was not in the delegation. Before the dawn of Christmas, they returned to Colombo and briefed Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat, John Gooneratne that the LTTE declared it was committed to the CFA. The LTTE was also willing to hold talks with the Government but only in Oslo whenever the latter was ready.

What about the wave of violence? Thamilselvan said they were carried out by the civilians angered by actions of the armed forces and the police. One co-chair envoy whispered to another "from where do these civilians get their claymore mines and RPGs?"

On December 26, a day before he joined President Mahinda Rajapakse on his state visit to India, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera received a full briefing from these envoys. It was an elaboration of what they had already told Mr. Gooneratne.

In essence, the LTTE was "fully committed" to the Ceasefire Agreement, wanted the first round of peace talks in Oslo and insisted that paramilitary groups be disbanded in accordance with the CFA. Hence, follow up action on the matter will come only after Special Envoy, Erik Solheim whom the Government failed to sideline, arrives in Colombo on January 23. Ahead of his visit, Mr. Solheim, now Norway's Minister of International Development is to go on holiday to Egypt. Our Political Editor deals with this aspect on the opposite page. How far ground realities will change before his arrival remains the critical question.

This is particularly in view of front organisations of the LTTE extending the cycle of violence to the East. There have been reports that the guerrillas plan to order the shutdown of government offices in areas they dominate in the east. There are also reports of plans to activate civilian groups who have been given military training.

Amidst these developments, the defence establishment was shocked to receive a report from a state intelligence agency. A reliable foreign counterpart had brought to their attention the activities of a high ranking security official. According to the foreign agency's report now being studied by the Defence Ministry, this official is said to be closely associating with a female who has close LTTE connections. She is suspected to be reporting to LTTE intelligence through an employee in a state corporation. Her latest assignment has been to help in the assassination of an armed forces commander.

In this backdrop, the brutal murder of parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham, when he was attending midnight mass on Christmas day at St Mary's Cathedral in Batticaloa, has fuelled fears in the security establishment of a retaliatory strike. Some VIP politicians in Colombo, who were suspected to be targets, have already been warned.

Mr. Pararajasingham and his wife Sugunam left Colombo on December 24 for Batticaloa. His wife said she had retired to bed since she was tired. Two months ago, a State security source had warned her husband that there was a plot to kill him.

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Behind the plot, according to this source, were members of the renegade Karuna faction together with other individuals. She had reminded him of this when told to get up and get dressed to go to church. He felt the two should be the first to receive communion from Rt. Rev. Kingsley Swamipillai. She had said she preferred if the two of them went for mass on Christmas morning. But her husband was insistent. So much so, they had arrived at the church that night some 45 minutes early. There was no one present and she got an eerie feeling. She and her husband chose to walk out of the church. When they were leaving, she had met her brother and family. Together, they had come back to the church.

The late Mr. Pararajasingham had a thorough knowledge of the East and was very perceptive. I had the occasion to interact with him in the 1980s when I was News Editor of the now defunct SUN / WEEKEND newspapers and he was the Batticaloa Correspondent. Even as a parliamentarian he never lost his common touch.

There is a serious lesson for President Rajapakse's administration arising from the killing of Mr. Pararajasingham. On December 25, the Information Department issued an official government statement which "condemned this cowardly act in the strongest possible terms". It added, "The government has instructed the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to appoint a special investigation team to conduct a full investigation into this assassination and bring to justice the perpetrators". This statement identified Mr. Pararajasingham as a member of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi.

Within minutes of this official government announcement came another from the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH). It began by saying "Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Member of Parliament (MP) for Batticaloa district Mr Joseph Pararajasingham was brutally gunned down by LTTE pistol men ……" It seemed there were two governments.

Not a single state intelligence arm was aware of a Tiger guerrilla hand. But, if the official statement of the JOH is true and they have credible evidence, Police Chief Chandra Fernando will have no problem in getting his men to crack the case. But, if it is not true, such statements within minutes after an incident only raise a question of credibility for the Rajapakse administration.

This is reminiscent of the 1980s when military propagandists doled out fairy tale stories in the belief that gullible Sri Lankans and the outside world would lap them up. But the image of the then Government and the country suffered and guerrilla claims gained greater credibility. Whilst the JOH made that statement, its head, Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Daya Sandagiri, offered a state funeral for the late Mr. Pararajasingham. The message was conveyed to his wife but it was turned down.

The late Mr. Pararajasingham was conferred LTTE's highest honour - Mamanithar or Great Man. His body was first taken to guerrilla-held Karadiyanaru in the Batticaloa district. Thereafter, it was taken to the centre of guerrilla power - the Wanni.

There, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran paid homage personally.
An eyewitness said he was choking with heavy emotion and anger when he shook the hands of late Mr. Pararajasingham's two sons - Subakant (36), who flew in from Canada and Subageet (35), who arrived from the UK. LTTE intelligence wing leader, Pottu Amman and a host of others had turned up before Mr. Prabhakaran visited.

As a new year begins today, President Rajapakse who has held office only for 43 days now has many formidable challenges. He has to get the armed forces and the police to a higher level of preparedness to meet threats to national security. That means weeding out the corrupt and the inefficient who are now making hay.

The past many weeks have seen a Ministry of Defence beginning to lose command and control over the service arms. Some top rungers have cast aside caution to the wind and embarked on their personal agendas. This has led to serious problems including morale. At the end, it is President Rajapakse and his administration that will become answerable. They should wake up to the situation before it is too late. Otherwise, all the blame will be on him. And quite rightly so.


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