Human bombs at work in Jaffna

Print edition : June 01, 2007

Sri Lankan soldiers search the belongings of bus passengers at an entry point to Colombo on April 28. The massive cordon-and-search operations come in the wake of Military Intelligence reports of large-scale infiltration by the LTTE into government-controlled areas in the Jaffna peninsula.-LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

Now LTTE men, when cornered, blow themselves up by triggering the explosives they wear. The idea is to kill as many of the enemy as possible.

AROUND 10.30 a.m. on April 29, a team of the Sri Lanka Navy surrounded the Mudipillaiyaar temple at Velanai West, an area situated off the Jaffna peninsula. Also with them was the temple's priest, whom they had picked up from his house at Kanthasamy Koviladdy because they wanted him to open the temple. The Navy, which has control of the region, was acting on a tip-off that a squad of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was hiding in the temple.

When the Navymen charged in, the Tiger operatives were taken by surprise. They took cover behind the ther (chariot) and even climbed the adjacent thermutti (platform) and started firing. The Navymen returned fire. In the shoot-out two LTTE men and a youth, who was a helper, and the 63-year-old priest, Ratnasabapathy Aiyar Somaskantha Kurukkal, were killed. Some Navymen were also hit.

As the Navymen closed in on the two remaining Tigers, they charged out, firing wildly. Then they pulled concealed levers, triggering off explosions, and self-destructed; both were wearing explosives-laden belts. The Navymen recovered two similar belts from the two men they had shot.

The four Tigers were identified as `Major' Eelamaaran, `Major' Gajan, `Capt.' Kovannan and `Capt.' Abhinayan. They were held responsible for recent incidents in the area such as the killing of a naval officer and the wounding of an Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) activist. The EPDP assists the Navy in the region in a paramilitary capacity.

Two days later, a tailor in nearby Naranthanai was shot dead by an LTTE operative. It is widely believed that the tailor tipped off the Navy about the Tigers hiding in the temple.

The Velanai incident was not the first time that the Tigers committed suicide in that manner. At Aanaikottai, close to Jaffna town, soldiers on motorcycles stumbled on two Tigers trying to plant a claymore mine on a tree. One ran away on seeing the soldiers, but the other was trapped. He then ran towards the soldiers, even as he fumbled with the concealed lever on his person. The soldiers shot him dead. It was discovered later that the LTTE man, identified as `Capt.' Priyadharshan, was trying to trigger the explosives he was wearing. Had he succeeded, a few soldiers would have been killed or maimed.

Another incident took place on Naavalar road in the heart of Jaffna town. Tipped off by an informant, a group of soldiers lay in wait near the railway gate on the road. Taken by surprise, the LTTE militant, `Lt.' Arivumagan, started running towards the soldiers and managed to trigger off the strapped explosives. An Army corporal of Military Intelligence was killed, while another member of Military Intelligence, a soldier, and the informant were injured. These incidents have brought home to the security forces the "transformation" of the LTTE in Jaffna. Earlier, LTTE members when cornered swallowed cyanide. The new approach seems to be to blow themselves up by triggering explosives strapped to their bodies. The idea is to not only avoid capture but also kill as many of the enemy as possible.

This new breed of explosives-laden Tigers is a little different from the well-known Black Tigers. The Black Tigers have a specific target and blow themselves up at the right time to get the target. In some instances, Black Tigers caught by the authorities have, either by design or by accident, blown themselves up.

The new breed, however, does not target a particular person or place. These men are engaged in other tasks but blow themselves up instead of taking cyanide when capture is imminent. For this they are in a constant state of preparedness, wearing the explosives-laden belt-vest all the time. Even the Black Tigers wore their explosives only when embarking on a mission. But a member of the new breed is in practice a mobile human bomb. Apart from avoiding capture, the idea is to wreak as much destruction as possible on the enemy.

The Sri Lanka security forces stationed in Jaffna regularly conduct cordon-and-search operations simultaneously in different parts of the peninsula, deploying thousands of personnel. The operations come in the wake of Military Intelligence reports of large numbers of LTTE men infiltrating government-controlled areas in the Jaffna peninsula. Trained LTTE members were moving into Jaffna by boat across the lagoon and landing at various points on the Thenmarachchi coast and also at Ariyalai east, reports said. The Tigers were also suspected of moving on foot in Vadamarachchi east along the lagoon and penetrating the Varani-Mulli areas of Thenmarachchi.

The influx apparently began in the last week of March but escalated dramatically after "Sarvasith" (New Year) on April 14. It is estimated that 175 to 200 "new" Tiger cadre are in Jaffna now and their numbers are said to be increasing.

LTTE men guard the A9 road connecting Jaffna to the rest of the country, at Mankulam in northern Sri Lanka, in this file picture. A new strategy of the LTTE is to use temples to operate from and to conceal weapons.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

These Tigers have not engaged in any spectacular operations so far and seem to be laying the groundwork for something big. They are allegedly setting up safe houses and clandestine camps in the peninsula; revamping and enhancing the organisation's intelligence network in the peninsula; and revising and refining undercover supply routes between the mainland and the peninsula. Arms are being smuggled in and concealed at various points; the dormant "fifth columnists" are being reactivated. It appears that the LTTE is getting ready for a full-fledged assault on the peninsula, and the infiltrators are forerunners of that objective.

Rattling the security forces further is recent knowledge about the qualitative difference in the cadre infiltrating Jaffna. The Tigers coming in are drawn from different units, ranging from the intelligence division to the leopard commandos. Despite different duties and tasks being assigned to them, a common factor binds them: most of them, if not all, are "human bombs" wearing explosives-laden belt-vests around their stomachs. They form a loose ensemble called the "Thatkaappu Vedigundangip Porani" (defensive explosive garment corps). The explosives are triggered when two concealed levers are joined together and yanked.

Further proof of its "new" tactics came in a speech by an LTTE leader, which was reported in the Tiger media. At a ceremony held on April 21 at the Kilinochchi cultural centre to honour the memory of `Capt.' Priyadharshan and `Lt.' Arivumagan, LTTE "Nitharsanam" TV head Thamilanban delivered the eulogy in which he "officially" revealed that LTTE cadre wearing explosives-laden garments (vedigundu angi) had infiltrated Jaffna in large numbers.

Thamilanban rationalised the self-destruction of LTTE cadre as necessary to avoid capture. The enemy would be intimidated severely, he added. The presence of a large number of Tiger cadre wearing explosives-laden garments was only an indication of what was in store, he warned.

A related development causing concern to the security establishment is the LTTE stratagem of using places of worship, particularly Hindu temples, to hide and to conceal weapons. Small temples in sparsely populated areas are usually chosen. Devotees attend pujas in large numbers only on Fridays or special days at these temples.

Docile priests are terrified of the Tigers and do not resist their attempts to violate the sanctity of the temples. Hence, incidents such as the one at the Mudipillaiyaar temple are likely to occur frequently. This, in turn, leads to resentment among sections of the people who frown upon security personnel "invading" the sacred precincts.

Shortly after the shoot-out at Mudipillaiyaar temple, another one in the area, the Puliyankoodal Muthumariamman temple, was in the eye of a storm. The gopuram of the temple was being painted and Navymen, after the experience at Mudipillaiyaar, were uneasy about the bamboo platform erected to facilitate the work. They wanted the platform dismantled.

Meanwhile, a parcel of explosives was found. A more elaborate search of the temple premises revealed a small cache of weapons, including claymore mines and anti-personnel mines, concealed in the upper portion of the sanctum sanctorum. Seven persons, including three trustees and two priests, were taken in for questioning. Five of them were released, but the priests remain in custody.

In a separate incident, Special Task Force (STF) personnel, acting on a tip-off, searched the famous Thaan Thondreeswarar temple at Kokkatticholai in Batticaloa district and recovered some arms and four explosives-laden vests. Soldiers also retrieved a few arms and one explosives-laden belt from the Madaswamy temple at Pandarikulam in Vavuniya. In Jaffna, some arms, including grenades, were found in a bag hidden behind the altar at St. Mary's Cathedral. Jaffna Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Soundraranayagam informed the security authorities about the bag.

Besides these finds, three recent developments are of great concern to the security forces. First, the slow but steady influx of LTTE cadre penetrating the peninsula; secondly, these cadre wearing and activating explosives-laden vests to avoid capture; thirdly, the practice of hiding in places of worship and concealing weapons there.

While the Air Tigers remain the primary focus of attention, these emerging LTTE trends on the ground are causing much concern to the security establishment.

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