Spreads To The North
Of Sri Lanka
By Sarath Kumara
14 August 2006
between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE) intensified and expanded over the weekend to the northern Jaffna
peninsula, claiming as many as 200 lives. While neither side has formally
withdrawn from the 2002 ceasefire, the agreement is effectively a dead
letter. The island is rapidly sliding back into full-scale civil war.
The LTTE launched a coordinated
offensive last Friday on key military positions, including an artillery
barrage on the Palaly airbase on the north of the Jaffna peninsula.
The facility is a crucial lifeline for security forces stationed in
the area as road links to the south of the island run through LTTE-controlled
territory and have now all been closed.
A military Bell 212 helicopter
as well as parts of the runway were damaged, forcing a suspension of
all military and commercial flights. The Security Forces Head Quarters,
situated in the same complex, came under LTTE long-range artillery fire
from a distance of about 30 kilometres. The army has been compelled
to rely on military helicopters to ferry in commandos to reinforce its
The LTTE also advanced northward
from Elephant Pass—a key strategic position that acts as the gateway
to the Jaffna peninsula and was captured by the LTTE in 2000. LTTE fighters
overran a number of the army’s forward bunkers. Sri Lanka Monitoring
Mission (SLMM) representative Robban Nilsson told Reuters: “Ten
bunkers of the Sri Lankan Army were taken but five of them were retaken
by the security forces... They [the LTTE] are still 500 metres inside
the [army] forward defence lines.”
On Saturday morning the LTTE
also shelled the eastern port of Trincomalee—a major naval base
and crucial link in shipping troops and military supplies to Jaffna.
In 2000, the Sri Lankan military confronted a disaster when tens of
thousands of troops were cut off and confronted a concerted LTTE offensive
up the Jaffna peninsula. Only the intervention of India and the major
powers pressured the LTTE to halt its drive and prevented a major debacle
for the military.
The military claimed to have
thwarted an LTTE sea-borne attack on positions near Jaffna town. Military
spokesman Brigadier Athula Jayawardena said helicopter gunships had
attacked a number of LTTE craft in the early hours of Sunday. He said
troops were still hunting a group of LTTE fighters who infiltrated Kayts
Island on Friday.
Estimates of the number of
dead in two days of fighting vary widely. The military has admitted
that 36 of its personnel are dead and at least 80 injured, while claiming
to have killed 150 rebels. The LTTE has acknowledged the deaths of 22
of its fighters.
President Mahinda Rajapakse
and his government have cynically blamed the LTTE for the latest round
of fighting. Government spokesman Nimal Siripala De Silva told the state-owned
newspaper Silumina on Sunday: “The government has emphasised that
the military steps taken are to safeguard the rights of the masses and
secure national defence, which constitutes no violation of the cease-fire
In reality, the escalating
conflict is a direct product of a series of provocative attacks on the
LTTE by the military and allied paramilitaries following Rajapakse’s
narrow election win last November. The current fighting is a direct
consequence of the president’s decision to order an offensive
on July 26 to capture the Mavilaru irrigation sluice gate on “humanitarian
grounds” to provide water to farmers downstream. Even though the
LTTE opened the sluice gate last week, the military has continued its
operation to seize LTTE territory—a clear breach of the ceasefire.
The army’s operations
have not been limited to the area around Mavilaru. The military used
the offensive as the pretext to bombard a number of key LTTE positions,
including the Sampur area south of the port of Trincomalee. Yesterday,
the LTTE accused Special Task Force police of attempting to overrun
one of its camps near the eastern town of Batticaloa. The military top
brass has long sought to take advantage of a debilitating split in the
LTTE’s ranks in 2004 that led to the formation of the breakaway
Karuna group. Not surprisingly, the LTTE has retaliated by attacking
the army’s weak points on the Jaffna peninsula.
SLMM head Ulf Henricsson
has told today’s Daily Mirror that he has recommended that the
Norwegian-led ceasefire monitors leave the country unless both sides
end the fighting immediately. “I recommended to Norway, to consider
withdrawing the mission because, I can’t see the need for it to
function, if it is not used by the parties. So, why should we be here
and sometimes, risk lives, when the parties don’t want us? They
just want us as a political cover,” he said.
Henricsson said he had ruled
that the government’s offensive to take the Mavilaru sluice gate
was an “offensive” not a “humanitarian” or defensive
operation. “They talk about humanitarian operations or defensive
airstrikes... I rule it as military offensive operations... Of course,
you are fighting your enemy and the government feels the whole operation
right now is defensive. But that is not my view on it, at least not
according to the CFA [ceasefire agreement],” he said.
In the midst of the current
fighting, Palitha Kohona, head of the government’s peace secretariat,
claimed to have received an offer from the LTTE to hold negotiations.
Kohona immediately embraced the proposal—a move that tends to
indicate that the military offensive is not proceeding as planned. S.
Puleedevan, head of the LTTE peace secretariat, immediately denied the
statement, saying: “We have made no proposal for peace talks.
The government’s offensive attacks make peace talks impossible.”
With the conflict escalating
and no prospect of a truce in sight, the US embassy in Colombo finally
issued a statement last Friday calling for an end to fighting and renewed
negotiations. The comments were the first since the government launched
its offensive over two weeks ago and indicate a concern in Washington
that the Sri Lankan military is facing difficulties. The previous silence
amounted to a virtual green light from the Bush administration for the
Rajapakse government’s operations.
The following day, the co-chairs
of the peace process—the US, the European Union, Japan and Norway—issued
their first formal declaration since the eruption of open conflict.
Having sat silent while scores of people have been killed and tens of
thousands driven from their homes, the co-chairs hypocritically expressed
deep concern about the fighting and urged an immediate return to the
A concerted international
intervention is unlikely, however. A Western diplomat told Reuters over
the weekend: “I think we are inclined to sit back and let them
[the government and the LTTE] take it on the chin for a while”.
SLMM spokesman Thorfinnur Omarsson expressed similar sentiments, saying:
“It is useless [to try to stop the fighting] if there is no initiative
from the parties... And both parties have shown no initiative.”
Civilians in the North and
East of the island are confronting a deepening social catastrophe.
According to the International
Red Cross, thousands of refugees are trapped behind LTTE lines to the
north of Batticaloa. There are estimated to be another 40,000 refugees
in the government-controlled areas in the East after residents fled
fierce fighting for control of the town of Muttur.
Before the fighting on the
Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE broadcast a message on Friday urging civilians
to move away from army posts in the Thenmaradchchi, Eluthumadduval,
Pulo-pallai, Kilali, Kodikamam, Kachchai and Varani areas. The security
forces, however, prevented an exodus by imposing a curfew that evening.
Shops were ordered to close and people ordered to stay indoors. Security
forces threatened to shoot those trying to flee.
As a result, many residents
were caught in the ensuing crossfire. In recent weeks, the military
has tried to justify its savage ground and air assaults, which have
killed scores of innocent people, by accusing the LTTE of using civilians
as “human shields”. In the case of the Jaffna peninsula,
it appears that the security forces consciously prevented the local
Tamil population from leaving to try to blunt an impending LTTE offensive.
As far as the government and the military are concerned, the island’s
entire Tamil minority is the enemy and is treated accordingly.