Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

in the war zone

The Frontline issue dated June 5, 2009, carried a report containing the observations of this correspondent inside the war zone between May 13 and 16. The Hindu group got embedded with the military for the first time in Eelam War IV, which began in August 2006, and was attached to 58 Division of the Sri Lanka Army. The division, headed by Brigadier Shavendra Silva, was in the forefront of the war in the north until the last shot was fired sometime on May 18-19.

The journalists of The Hindu/Frontline and All India Radio/Doordarshan, the only foreign print and electronic media outfits allowed access, took the call on May 16 to extend their stay in the war zone as it became clear that the end of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was near. The visit was facilitated by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, younger brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and one of the architects of the government victory in Eelam War IV.

There were no conditions spelled out on the coverage from the war zone. We were allowed unfettered and unhindered movement up to about 400 metres from the zone, where pitched battles were fought between the military and the remaining cadre and leaders of the LTTE. We also got an occasional peep, under the watchful eyes of senior officers, into the operations room at the headquarters of 58 Division, where 24/7 imagery of the war zone, obtained by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, were beamed on small and large television screens. In addition, the military conducted tours, often 300 to 400 metres away from the last battle zone, once the ground situation was under the firm control of the forces.

Most important was the fact that we had interference-free access to the Internet, including TamilNet, the website perceived to be pro-LTTE and based somewhere in Europe. Within the constraints of Internet time available, and not-unexpected problems of connectivity and speed in a war zone, there was just enough time to read and absorb the reports on the website before sending news dispatches to our headquarters. No questions were asked.

It must be said that the journalistic team associated with TamilNet did a marvellous job of relaying the scenes of the last hours of Eelam War IV as they unfolded. Obviously, they were in regular touch with LTTE leaders in the war theatre.

The news, nuggets and nuances that reflected in the TamilNet reportage, minus the blatant propaganda that both sides excelled in, gave a fairly good idea of the last hours and minutes as experienced and relayed by the last batch of Tiger cadre and the LTTE top brass.

A close scrutiny of the information war waged by the two parties in cyberspace showed to the discerning eye that neither side hid much in real terms. Both sides, for reasons that only objective military experts may know, were extremely careful on what they could let the world know in the final hours of the war. In practical terms, can war and the rules of engagement co-exist? An embedded scribe is not qualified to attempt an answer to this question.

Here is an account of what I saw and heard and otherwise sensed in the last 70 hours of Eelam War IV. The clock begins at 3 p.m. on May 16, where the narrative published in the previous issue ended, and stops at 12.30 p.m. on May 19, when army chief Lt Gen. Sarath Fonseka announced to the world: A few hours ago on Tuesday morning [May 19], our ground troops confirmed that they have recovered the dead body of the worlds most ruthless terrorist leader. I make this disclosure with responsibility and pleasure as millions of Sri Lankans as well as the army would be the most delighted at this news.

Information gathered by this correspondent from a group of the last batch of 80,000 civilians to flee the LTTE-occupied zone reveals that the Tigers made a determination on May 10 that they had lost the war and that no purpose would be achieved by holding on to the civilians. However, it is not clear on what note they wanted to end the war.

On May 11, the Tigers seemed to have deserted the sentry points, dismantled the defence lines and destroyed everything they could. The exodus of the last batch of civilians started on May 12/13 and perhaps by the night of May 15 there were no civilians left in the 1.5-square-kilometre area the Tigers were boxed into.

The accounts of the last hours provided by the civilians by and large tallied with the evidence that has surfaced so far. The detention of Sea Tiger chief Soosais family by the Navy on May 15/16 and the discovery of Prabakarans aged parents in a camp by the military on May 27 provided the ultimate proof that the Tigers had decided to spare the lives of the civilians they held.

The May 15 decision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) the only outfit present inside the war zone until four days before the war ended to suspend humanitarian operations inside the Tiger-held territory proved beyond doubt that the overwhelming majority of the civilians were out of the battle zone and that the military and the Tigers were engaged in no-holds-barred fight. The beaming faces of the commanders and troops spoke volumes about the fate that awaited the Tigers.

On May 16, President Rajapaksa declared at the G-11 Summit in Jordan that the LTTE had been defeated, even as troops moved in to flush out the remaining Tiger cadre and leaders holed up in the area. On that day the number of civilians who fled to government-controlled territory touched 20,000, while over 30,000 waited to cross over.

Citing intercepted communication, the Defence Ministry surmised that LTTE leaders and cadre were preparing for mass suicide after all escape routes had been cut off. Soosais wife told her military interrogators that Prabakaran was inside the war zone along with his son Charles Anthony, Tiger intelligence chief Pottu Amman and Soosai.

From the operations room I could see smoke bellowing from the battle zone, which troops believed was the result of the Tigers setting fire to property and ammunition. TamilNet said: An uncounted number of dead bodies, between 2,000 and 3,000, are lying all over the place in civilian congested area and the civilians are all struck by a heavy stench of dead bodies.

Rajapaksa told the G-11 Summit that the defeat of the LTTE heralded a new era in Sri Lanka and provided all Sri Lankans a new opportunity for peace and development. He announced that he would return to Sri Lanka as a leader of a nation that vanquished terrorism.

Frontline learnt from impeccable sources that from Jordan Rajapaksa sent a message to the ICRC that his government was ready even at that late stage to accept the surrender of the Tiger leaders if it was unconditional. The message was duly conveyed but the initiative failed because the Tigers were ready to surrender only to a third party and not to the military.

Many in the world believed that the LTTE is invincible, but I am proud to announce at this august gathering that my government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has in an unprecedented humanitarian operation, finally defeated the LTTE militarily, Rajapaksa told the G-11 Summit.

He added that efforts were under way to complement the humanitarian mission with a political solution. History has taught us that solutions externally prescribed, with little understanding of the complexity of the problem on the ground, are prone to failure. My government is, therefore, firmly committed to seeking a home-grown solution acceptable to all communities living in Sri Lanka, he said.

The endgame inside the war zone began early on May 16, with soldiers freeing the last remaining coastal stretch that the LTTE held. The link-up marked the first time that the military had total control of the Islands coastline in three decades. However, questions loomed in the minds of commanders on the whereabouts of the LTTE top brass, including the supremo.

On May 17, the military and the Tigers were engaged in one of the most intense battles witnessed during the 33-month-old Eelam War IV. The military operations began at 5 a.m. and loud explosions could be heard in the battle zone throughout the day. The Tigers waged a hopeless battle in a bid to prolong the inevitable, if not exactly to save the LTTE top brass.

In a statement to TamilNet, the head of the LTTEs international affairs, K. Pathmanathan (KP), said: We need to do everything within our means to stop this carnage. If this means silencing our arms and entering into a peace process, that is something that we have already agreed to. The statement made no reference either to the governments demand for unconditional surrender or to the whereabouts of the LTTE top brass.

On his arrival from Jordan in the early hours of May 18, Rajapaksa knelt down in prayer at the Bandaranaike International Airport near Colombo. At the G-11 Summit he had declared that he would go to a country where all citizens had been liberated from the terrorism of the LTTE.

KPs statement said: This battle has reached its bitter end. Against all odds we have held back the advancing Sinhalese forces without help or support, except for the unending support of our people. It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them. We remain with one last choice to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer. We can no longer bear to see the innocent blood of our people being spilled.

We are extremely saddened that this plea has fallen on deaf ears, it said and appealed to the international community to take immediate measures to save the Tamil people caught in the war zone and take necessary action to protect the cadre and people giving themselves up to the military.

Referring to silencing our arms and entering a peace process, Pathmanathan said: This is the need of the hour. These are historically unprecedented times and require historically prudent decisions. If this means saving the lives of thousands of people, it needs to be done.

The statement also said:

There is not a person who can doubt the LTTEs fearless and unending commitment to this cause, with which we have been entrusted by our people. Know that the Tamils are a people deeply rooted in culture and history. No force can prevent the attainment of justice for our people. Our sons and daughters have taken up this call without question and without hesitation or fear of death.

None have hesitated to make the supreme sacrifice for the cause of liberating their motherland. We have not forgotten that it is for our people that we fight. In the face of the current conditions, we will no longer permit this battle to be used as a justification by the forces of the Sinhala state to kill our people. We willingly stand up with courage and silence our guns. We have no option other than to continue our plea to the international community to save our people.

The curtain came down on Eelam War IV in the early hours of May 18 with the decimation of the LTTEs military capabilities in a 22-hour battle, which also resulted in the death of at least 18 of its top leaders. There was no clarity at that juncture about whether Prabakaran was among the dead.

On the afternoon of May 18 the army chief went on record to state that the military commanders were unable to confirm the death of Prabakaran as they had not been able to trace him or his body in the combing operations. He pointed to unconfirmed reports that troops sighted Prabakaran jumping into a white ambulance in a bid to flee and opened fire. The ambulance then went up in flames. Reports also said the forces believed that a body burnt beyond recognition that they recovered from the battle zone could be that of Prabakaran.

This correspondent accompanied the top commanders to the spot where bodies of the LTTE brass were brought in tractors for identification. It was less than 100 metres from where LTTE leaders were last holed up. The commanders said the bodies whose identities had been confirmed by the military included those of Charles Anthony, the elder son of Prabakaran; Pottu Amman, the Tiger intelligence wing chief; B. Nadesan, the political wing head; and S. Pulithevan, the peace secretariat in-charge. There was no word on Prabakaran, and subsequently it became known that the military was not certain about Pottu Amman.

Along with the bodies of LTTE leaders lined up inside the war zone, the military also put on display the captured weapons, ammunition, communication equipment and several bundles of Sri Lankan currency. Most of the leaders appeared to have died either of gunshot wounds or in suicide blasts triggered by the cadre. A few appeared to have swallowed the cyanide capsule.

The intensity of the battle could be gauged from the fact that the bodies of at least 250 Tiger cadre had been found until then. The commanders on the spot believed that several more bodies could be lying in bunkers. In the evening, in the national capital, the chiefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force called on Rajapaksa and informed him that the war had concluded. The President rewarded them all with a promotion to a higher rank.

The first sign that the military had overwhelmed the remaining cadre and leaders of the LTTE came at around 10 a.m. at the headquarters of 58 Division. Soldiers passed around cakes and the personnel inside the operations room appeared totally relaxed.

Around the same time, confirmation of the news that it was all over for the LTTE came in the form of a feature on TamilNet. Titled Long live human dignity, shame on international community, it read, While the so-called international community is exposed in its shameful conning, thousands of Tamil civilians and combatants are laying down their lives to uphold Tamil dignity and human dignity.

Later in the day TamilNet said that around 3 a.m. Wanni local time on May 18, Nadesan and Pulithevan had telephoned their contacts in Europe and asked them to tell the ICRC head office that only around 1,000 wounded cadre, civil officials of the LTTE and civilians remained in the so-called safety zone and that there was no firing from the LTTE side.

They urged the ICRC to evacuate the wounded. A few hours later, Colombos Defence Ministry website claimed finding the dead bodies of Nadesan, Pulithevan, Ilango (Tamileelam police chief), and LTTE leader V. Pirapaharans son Charles Antony. The LTTE is yet to confirm, but initial reports indicate a determined massacre by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), the website said.

In Colombo, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moons special envoy Vijay Nambiar called on Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagamma and discussed the ground situation in the north as well as the welfare of the 2.75 lakh displaced civilians. Nambiar had arrived ahead of an official visit by Ban Ki-moon hours after the military announced that it had wiped out the LTTEs military capabilities.

In a statement, the ICRC said that for nine consecutive days it had pursued efforts to reach the area of north-eastern Sri Lanka hard hit by fighting. It said the ICRC had been unable to obtain first-hand information about the needs of the civilians and wounded people though thousands of civilians had fled the conflict zone in the past days and weeks.

TamilNet launched a no-holds-barred attack on the government and the international community hours after the LTTEs defeat.

In a report the website said:

Although they initially claimed that the objective of the war was to defeat the LTTE, they have in fact killed and wounded several thousands of innocent Tamil civilians with heavy weapons. They used chemical weapons and cluster bombs on innocents, but they continue to deny the usage of such weapons.

This war has claimed more than fifty thousand lives just within the last few months, but the Sri Lankan government is not going to open its mouth and tell this truth to the world. United Nations, who is supposed to be a guardian for the oppressed people in the world, turned out to be a silent spectator of a man-made disaster that has taken the lives of many thousands. Posing the question What next?, it went on to say: When the rocket scientists designed highly complex derivatives and greedy traders traded these new emperors cloths, many investment banks collapsed. Pension funds lost money. Bankers committed suicide. The whole financial disaster was caused by greedy and selfish individuals who had short-term hidden agendas. We took action. Greedy bankers and traders were taken to courts. New rules and regulations are now in place to prevent this happening again. In the same way, the masters of this war in Sri Lanka should be brought to justice.

Ending all suspense and speculation, the government announced on May 19 afternoon that its troops had recovered the bodies of Prabakaran and Soosai. The troops found Prabakarans bullet-ridden body on the bank of the Nanthikadal lagoon and the announcement was made after it was identified by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (Col. Karuna), Minister in the Rajapaksa government and former Tiger commander who broke ranks with the LTTE in 2004, and by Daya Master, LTTE media coordinator who left the war zone along with thousands of fleeing civilians and surrendered to the military on April 21.

Two hours before the announcement, Rajapaksa, in an address to Parliament, said the island nation had been freed from the clutches of separatist terrorism and the need of the hour was to ensure full rights to the Tamils in the country, with a home-grown solution acceptable to all. He made no reference to the LTTE chief.

The appeal made little difference to the jubilant mood across the island. In contrast, reports from Tamil- and Muslim-dominated areas spoke of a sombre and sullen atmosphere.

This correspondent, returning from Anuradhapura in the war zone, witnessed people bursting crackers and distributing sweets as the state-owned television channel, Rupavahini, flashed images of Prabakarans body. Incidentally, the news of Prabakarans death came hours after KP was quoted on TamilNet as saying that Prabakaran is alive and well.

The Sri Lankan government may have declared a military victory. But it does not realise that it is a hollow victory, he said. It was not until May 24 that KP acknowledged formally in a press statement that Prabakaran had attained martyrdom. TamilNet promptly denounced the statement and, quoting intelligence wing chief of the Tigers, insisted that Prabakaran was alive and would resurface at the appropriate time.

Several questions remain on the bid by the Tigers to surrender in the last minute and may never be answered. Marie Colvin, senior journalist with The Sunday Times (London), in a report (Tigers begged me to broker surrender) in the Internet edition of the paper on May 24, says Nadesan contacted her on his satellite phone in the early hours of May 17 and asked her to broker a surrender. We are putting down our arms. We are looking for a guarantee of security from the Obama administration and the British government. Is there a guarantee of security? she quoted him as saying.

It is evident from her report that Nadesan was talking only on his behalf and on behalf of Pulithevan. It says: Although the Tamil Tigers are internationally banned because of past acts of terrorism, including suicide bombings, Nadesan and Puleedevan favoured a political solution to the conflict. Had they lived, they would have been credible political leaders for the Tamil minority.

It was Velupillai Prabhakaran, their commander, who built the movement into a military machine. He was paranoid and ruthless, and he remained committed to military means even as the Tamil Tigers lost ground in the face of the Sri Lankan army onslaught, the report said. It left no scope for ambiguity that they were attempting to break ranks with the leadership.

Marie Colvin further says she managed to establish contact with Vijay Nambiar. I had passed on the Tigers conditions for surrender, which he had said he would relay to the Sri Lankan government I told him the Tigers had laid down their arms. He said he had been assured by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan President, that Nadesan and Puleedevan would be safe in surrendering. All they had to do was hoist a white flag high.

I asked Nambiar if he should not go north to witness the surrender. He said no, that would not be necessary: the Presidents assurances were enough. Over the past few days, Nambiars role as U.N. envoy has come into question. His brother, Satish, has been a paid consultant to the Sri Lankan army since 2002. Satish once wrote that General Sarath Fonseka, commander of the Sri Lankan armed forces, displayed the qualities of a great military leader, she writes.

Frontline caught up with Nambiar in Colombo for his version of the events on the morning of May 17. He said:

I received a call from KP at Amman while I was on my way to Colombo in preparation for the visit of the U.N. Secretary-General. He told me the Tigers are ready to surrender to a third party. I asked him on the whereabouts of Prabakaran and his reply was that he had no idea. I told him that I would convey to the government his message about the Tigers.

I received another call from KP as soon as I landed at Colombo around 5.30 a.m. I conveyed to him that I had passed on his earlier message to the Sri Lanka government and that it was ready to accept surrender but only to the military and not to a third party. Once again I asked him on the whereabouts of Prabakaran and he repeated that he did not know anything on the subject. That was the end of the matter as far as I am concerned. As for the insinuations in a section of the press about me and my brother, I do not deem it warrants even a response.

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