In the cross hairs

Print edition : March 23, 2007

Perhaps the LTTE attack on helicopters ferrying diplomats was meant more to embarrass the government than to kill.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Colombo

Envoys of the U.S., Japan and Italy, Robert O. Blake, Kiyoshi Araki and Pio Mariani respectively, arrive in Colombo from Batticaloa, along with Mahinda Samarasinghe, Disaster Management Minister, and others on February 27.-LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

February 22 marked the fifth anniversary of the Norwegian-brokered Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Five days later, on February 27, the Tamil Tigers demonstrated in a chilling fashion that the pact was a dead letter. The daring daylight guerrilla attack on two helicopters carrying top diplomats near the Sri Lanka Air Force base in Batticaloa shattered beyond doubt many myths about the prevailing environment in the island nation.

It was a miraculous escape for the diplomats, including the American envoy, as LTTE cadre resorted to indiscriminate artillery fire; the Italian Ambassador sustained a skull injury. The incident sparked off a war of words between the government and the Tigers on who was responsible for exposing the diplomatic community to such danger.

The incident has also caused a rift within government circles. The Foreign Ministry is sore with the Disaster Management and Human Rights Ministry for taking the diplomats to the war zone without its knowledge, leave alone consent. Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, who is President Mahinda Rajapaksa's brother, sought to shift the blame onto the diplomatic community for pressuring the government with unreasonable travel requests to security-risk zones.

The truth is that the incident is a reflection of the harsh ground realities. Had the tour gone off smoothly, the government would have patted itself on the back about the peaceful situation in the "liberated" East and on its strategy.

In the worst-case scenario, the Tigers would not have owned responsibility for the mortar attack and blamed it all on either the military or the breakaway Karuna faction of the LTTE, which is supposed to be trampling all over Batticaloa. It would not have posed any great problem for the Tigers to sell the line after the President triumphantly declared in the wake of the fall of Vaharai that 95 per cent of the East had been liberated.

Details on the trip and its aftermath highlight the possible motives of the various actors in the gory drama. The trip was organised by Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe to show the top diplomats the gains made recently by the Sri Lanka military and the government in the East.

The diplomats were also to participate in a meeting in the Batticaloa district secretariat on the resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), besides human rights and development issues. Vaharai, the fishing village taken by the Army from LTTE control in January, was their next stop.

The helicopter landed near the Air Force base at 8-55 a.m. The entourage that got off from it included U.S. Ambassador Robert O. Blake, French Ambassador Jean-Bernard de Vaivre, Japanese Ambassador Kiyoshi Araki, Italian Ambassador Pio Mariani, United Nations Resident Coordinator Frederick Lyons and Nishani Jayamaha, UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) liaison officer at the Ministry of Disaster Management.

The rest were still in the helicopter when a thundering explosion rent the air. The captain asked the passengers who had not disembarked to remain seated, and the aircraft took to the air. The other helicopter, a Bell 212, which was hovering above, was asked to remain in the air by air traffic controllers. The two helicopters with the remaining diplomats, and U.N. and government officials flew to Valachchenai, 40 kilometres away, and landed at the 52 Brigade Headquarters of the Army, housed in what was once the Eastern Paper Mills Corporation complex.

Significantly, the Tigers went public first on the incident; they not only owned responsibility for the attack but sought to pin the blame on the government. In its statement, the LTTE said:

"In recent times the Batticaloa air space has only been used by the Sri Lankan military. Two landing sites, the Batticaloa airstrip and the military head office complex, are used for military purposes only. The airstrip was also used to bring military supply. Sri Lankan military also uses these locations as artillery positions. Even this morning there was provocative shelling by the Sri Lankan military in Batticaloa.

"LTTE military spokesman, S. Ilanthiriyan, expressed shock and sadness that [the] Sri Lanka government has exposed senior diplomats to danger by allowing air crafts (sic) carrying them into an area where they have declared military operations without informing [the] LTTE in advance. He added that this is criminal negligence on the part of the Sri Lankan government. He said that simple diplomacy could have avoided the unfortunate incident and condemned the childish action of the Sri Lankan military.

"Ilanthiriyan noted that a channel of communication exists between the LTTE and U.N. agencies and the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] for exchanging flight information when flying to the Palaly military airport in Jaffna. This well-established and effective channel is operated through the LTTE Secretariat for Liaison with U.N. and International Agencies in Kilinochchi. No such channel of communication has been opened regarding Batticaloa airspace.

"Indeed, immediately after the event, Marian Din Kajdomcaj, Head of U.N. Security, contacted M. Pavarasan of the LTTE liaison office and the shelling was stopped immediately and the air crafts (sic) with foreign diplomats were able to take off safely. Kadomcaj (sic) thanked Pavarasan of [the] LTTE for the prompt action and acknowledged their failure to warn [the] LTTE about the flight in advance."

The government condemned in the strongest terms the attack on the diplomats and reiterated its position on the need to eliminate terrorism. Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, in a statement, said the Tigers had again demonstrated their terrorist nature by launching an attack on the diplomatic corps on their visit to Batticaloa on a humanitarian mission.

"I take this opportunity to call upon the international community to support the endeavours of the Government of Sri Lanka to address the scourge of terrorism and to pressure the LTTE to give up terrorism and return to the democratic fold. Once again, this is a reminder for the international community to take effective measures to eliminate fund raising and weapons procurement by the LTTE in foreign countries," he said.

It is difficult to give the LTTE the benefit of the doubt when it claims that it did not have any knowledge of the presence of diplomats on the helicopters. Its cadre could not have managed to target the helicopters so precisely unless they had minute-to-minute information on the movement of the aircraft, particularly considering the fact that they were half an hour behind schedule. At the same time the Tigers could not be unaware of the consequences of an attack on diplomats of powerful countries such as the U.S. May be that was the reason why the attack did not prove fatal. Perhaps it was meant to embarrass Colombo.

The February 27 incident is a grim reminder of the volatile situation in the country. It is a mirror of what the future holds if the government and the Tigers do not reconsider their strategies. The Tigers have warned many times in recent months of an "island-wide blood bath" if the international community continues its "soft approach towards the military strategy" of the Rajapaksa government.

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