Straining ceasefire

Print edition : June 02, 2006

A full-fledged but undeclared politico-military conflict is under way between the Sri Lankan state and the separatists.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

Lt.-Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who was injured in an LTTE bombing in Colombo in May.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

SRI LANKA'S separatist conflict is headed for a critical change in the coming months. A full-fledged but undeclared politico-military offensive is under way between the state and the separatists, whilst both sides - and the international community - maintain that a faltering, four-year-old ceasefire is "holding". The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was formed 30 years ago on May 5, 1976, is hastening towards a qualitatively different phase of confrontation. Despite its two recent failed military attempts to render redundant the island-nation's four-year-old faltering ceasefire agreement, it is aiming for sovereign parity with the Sri Lankan state through politico-military means.

The Sri Lankan government has made it clear to the LTTE that it would retaliate against any rebel strike on its security forces through "limited operations" involving all three wings of its armed forces, including resort to air strikes on "identified targets".

On May 11, just a fortnight after its failed bid to assassinate the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Lt.-General Sarath Fonseka, the LTTE shifted its theatre of operations to the sea. The chosen target was a naval convoy comprising a troop carrier vessel, Pearl Cruise II, which was ferrying 710 unarmed security forces personnel returning after home leave and its accompanying naval fast attack craft (FACs). The failed attack on Pearl Cruise II was significant on two counts. It was timed just ahead of Vesak, the most important religious festival in Sinhala-Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, and the ship was flying the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) flag, and had an SLMM monitor on board.

The action started in the evening when Pearl Cruise II was about 30 nautical miles off the northern Jaffna peninsula. According to the government, "12 LTTE armed boats and four suicide craft were detected approaching the vessel at high speed". The "flotilla of explosives-laden LTTE suicide boats" attempted to attack Pearl Cruise II, but "the Navy intercepted and returned fire to safeguard the lives of 710 unarmed security forces personnel and the SLMM monitor on board". The attack lasted "several hours", and one naval craft was destroyed by "an LTTE suicide boat". A full-scale battle was evident when the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) "also engaged the attacking flotilla and destroyed another LTTE boat and inflicted damage to several others".

At least 17 sailors, including two officers who were on board the FAC sunk by the rebels, have been declared "missing in action" by the Navy. The Navy said at least five LTTE Sea Tiger craft were destroyed, and guesstimated that the rebel death toll could be at least 50, based on the assumption that each LTTE craft would have been manned by at least 10 cadre. The LTTE said only one of its craft was lost and gave a death toll of four. The SLMM condemned the attack as a "gross violation" of the CFA by the LTTE and said that as a "non-state actor" the Tigers had no right over the sea or air space.

In addition to the action at sea, the SLAF struck at the LTTE's "illegal aviation facility" being developed at Iranamadu in rebel-held northern Sri Lanka in an attempt "to deter further attacks by the LTTE". The government has tried to bring the grave security threat posed by this aviation facility to Sri Lanka and to the region to the attention of the international community at the highest level. "This facility also violates national and international civil aviation regulations," the government said. It also pointed out that the SLMM had "on several occasions attempted to inspect this facility and been denied access by the LTTE" and that the "SLMM has ruled the LTTE's denying of access to this facility as a violation of the CFA".

Colombo said the attack was "yet another attempt by the LTTE to create an ethnic backlash in the country". It "strongly condemned" the "unprovoked act of terrorism by the LTTE" which "endangered the lives of unarmed security forces personnel and also SLMM monitors". The government reaffirmed its commitment to "exercise restraint under the CFA" and called upon the international community to take "decisive and deterrent action" against the "continued acts of terrorism and CFA violations perpetrated by the LTTE".

The LTTE took strong objection to the SLMM's position on the May 11 attack. In a letter to Ulf Henricsson, the SLMM Head of Mission on the same day and at a meeting with him in rebel-held Kilinochchi the next day, it charged the Norwegian body with "partiality" and overstepping its "mandate".

LTTE CADRE on the road connecting Jaffna to the rest of the country near Mankulam, on May 14. Government jets hit rebel positions south of the town after the attack on the naval convoy.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

The LTTE's political wing leader, S.P. Tamilselvan, said the group did not enter the negotiations in order to have judgments passed based on classifications. "The CFA and the entire peace process is between two parties, it is not based on LTTE as a non-state actor and the government as a state actor," he said.

Pushing the case for parity, he said that when the CFA was signed with the government, the LTTE had a military with an army, a naval force, and an air-wing. The LTTE had also been "effectively running a civil administration in the liberated areas consisting pf 60 to 70 per cent of the entire homeland," he said. Making evident the call for parity, he said these were part of the "necessary infrastructure for the civil administration, policing, judiciary. There are humanitarian bodies."

The LTTE was unapologetic in its choice of a target, a ship flying the SLMM flag with a monitor on board. Demanding parity, it said the SLMM had refused to provide such escort for its cadre travelling between northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

Sea Tigers special commander Soosai also asserted that the Tigers had "unequivocally asserted" its rights to "maritime waters adjoining the Tamil homeland". The LTTE, he said, was "not prepared to relinquish [its] sovereign rights to the seas".

The nature and geographical spread of the LTTE's attacks over the past few months give an indication of the times ahead. With the ceasefire straining at the seam with every passing day, the LTTE has set the stage for the next phase of confrontation in which its calls for parity and sovereignty will only get louder.

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