ON November 1, at an unknown location in the Wanni jungles of Sri Lanka, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief Velupillai Prabakaran decorated and honoured the members of the Tigers nascent air wing and surviving members of the suicide squad that dealt a deadly blow to the Anuradhapura airbase of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) on October 22 (story on page 45). Less than 24 hours later, the SLAF took its revenge by bombing a gathering of LTTE leaders in Kilinochchi, the administrative headquarters of the Tigers. This included its political wing chief, S.P. Tamilselvan.
The SLAF knew it had hit at a group of senior LTTE operatives and went public about the two separate raids carried out at 6 a.m. on November 2, but it realised the value of the target almost seven hours later when the LTTE announced the death of Tamilselvan and five of his colleagues. It was sensational news and there was jubilation not only in government circles but also in the capital market.
Though it would never be known whether the Sri Lanka military deliberately targeted Tamilselvan or not, the strike is a major political and moral blow to the LTTE, which has suffered a series of setbacks in recent military campaigns. For over a year now the SLAF has routinely bombed select targets of the Tigers in the North and East but it is for the first time in the history of the two-anda-half-decade conflict that it managed to zero in on a high-profile personality of the LTTE.
Theoretically speaking, Tamilselvan, 40, cannot be categorised as a legitimate military target. After all, the Norwegian-brokered 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) still exists on paper and Tamilselvan was the chief LTTE negotiator. Though the peace process stands virtually abandoned and an undeclared war has been on since June 2006, neither side has walked out of the CFA formally.
However, by conferring posthumously the title of Brigadier, the highest military title within the organisation, on Tamilselvan, the LTTE has acknowledged the SLAF strike, clearly indicating that it is prepared for an all-out war.
The killing of Tamilselvan would be viewed as an act of retaliation by the military for the Anuradhapura attack. The unofficial count of the military aircraft destroyed or damaged is 23 one of the biggest losses in the history of the conflict and retribution was only to be expected.
Even if Tamilselvan was not the intended target of the military, through the air raid the government has sent out a message that it is going to take the war right into the heart of the LTTE territory. The international face of the LTTE, Tamilselvan, in his capacity as the head of the political wing, was its negotiator as well as the chief messenger of Prabakaran vis-a-vis the rest of the world.
Tamilselvan was considered the successor of Anton S. Balasingham, the LTTE ideologue who died in London in December last year. He was once part of its military wing and lost a leg in one of the battles.
Meanwhile, much to the embarrassment of the government, Colonel Karuna, the breakaway LTTE faction leader, was picked up by the police in London on charges of travelling on a forged passport. He was instrumental in helping the military chase away the LTTE from the East. There have been speculations that his exit from the country was facilitated by the government following fissures within his group, and charges of abductions for ransom and killings by his followers.in Colombo