Striking terror, again

Published : Aug 27, 2004 00:00 IST

With successful strikes against its adversaries in Colombo, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam tries to place itself in a strong position and negotiate peace on its own terms.

in Colombo

Then, like a spider spinning its web, they wove a dense network of strands that would eventually subjugate them, removing any resisters at the first tremor.

- Francois Bizot (2004) in The Gate, a memoir of his experiences as a Khmer Rouge captive in the killing fields of Cambodia.

THROUGH three gruesome attacks in Colombo in July, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) not only reopened its urban front in its decades-long war against the Sri Lankan state, but gave a clear indication that its intelligence unit could dismember the best-laid plans of an adversary.

Finding itself at the wrong end of the gun in early July, the LTTE quickly settled scores with its adversaries - old and new - by the month-end. The July 7 suicide-bombing in which five people were killed at a police station in Colombo, the massacre of eight persons at a calm suburb of the capital and the murder of an anti-LTTE operative on July 31 explains the note of caution issued by the Norwegian peace facilitators that the "frozen war is starting to melt at the edges" and that political complacency does not augur well for the island.

After weeks of skirmishes in eastern Sri Lanka between the LTTE and the rebels led by its former military `commander' V. Muralitharan alias `Col' Karuna, the battleground shifted to Kottawa, about 15 kilometres from Colombo. In a pre-dawn attack, seven supporters of Karuna and a Sinhalese person were shot dead at point-blank range when they were asleep in a safe house, shattering the tranquillity of the Sinhalese-majority hamlet. "We heard something similar to crackers being set off around 3-30 a.m.," neighbours told the police. Among the dead were Kuhanesan, reported to be the second-in-command and finance head of Karuna's faction; Castro, who was in-charge of his military unit; and Kesavan, a graduate of the Eastern University, who had joined the Tigers recently.

About the Sinhalese person, Dhammika, the Tigers and the Sri Lanka Army have been making contradictory statements. While the Tigers claimed that he was an Army intelligence operative who was abetting Karuna, Army sources said he was a heavy-vehicle driver in north-central Polonnaruwa district, and suggested that he could have joined the LTTE "for money". "The Directorate of Military Intelligence categorically denies [the] Army's involvement and the Sri Lanka Army further assures that no military intelligence operative is among the dead," the Army Headquarters said in a statement. According to Defence sources, Dhammika "had worked in LTTE-held areas two years ago and had continued to work with Karuna's group after the March spilt [in the LTTE]".

The police suspect the massacre to be "an inside job" as the victims offered no resistance and the door was not broken open. The plush ground floor was undisturbed. There was no visible damage to the house. The bullet-riddled bodies, some sprawled on mats with minimum nightwear, were strewn across. on the sparsely furnished first floor.

The blood-splattered walls, a radio playing Tamil film songs, a used magazine of an automatic pistol, spent .9 mm cartridges and mobile phones with their SIM cards missing were the only pieces of evidence. The Army says a .9 mm automatic Uzi pistol could have been used in the attack. A Sri Lankan Tamil had reportedly taken the house on lease for Rs.1.32 lakhs a year in early July under the pretext of conducting the weddings of his sons. The Sinhalese owner reportedly left for India after leasing out the house.

The LTTE did not claim responsibility for the massacre, but its official web site noted that the killings were carried out by the "dissidents" of Karuna's group, who had "surrendered" to the Tigers in the eastern Amparai district after killing "seven Karuna's men at 1 a.m.". It alleged that the house was "provided with military security", a charge that the Army denied. A press conference by the "dissidents" who had carried out the killing was scheduled by the LTTE in Kilinochchi, but was subsequently "postponed indefinitely".

The immediate consequence of the Kottawa incident is the delay in Karuna's publicly announced plan to start a new political party.

Another outcome is the change in the situation in eastern Sri Lanka, particularly Batticaloa district where Karuna was the undisputed LTTE leader for 17 years. In his July 11 interview to the BBC Tamil service, Karuna had said that the "eastern people would rise in revolt" if their "patience continued to be tested". The Kottawa incident, however, changed the basis for all that. According to the sketchy information available from the east, the LTTE has once again gained the upper hand, with the muted public endorsement of Karuna's rebellion on the wane. However, signs of continued resistance were evident from reports that the funeral of three slain supporters of Karuna was well-attended despite the LTTE diktat. BARELY a week after the gunning down of Karuna's supporters, the long paw of the wounded Tiger reached out once again in Colombo to strike at one of its prime targets - the 41-year-old wrecker-in-chief of the LTTE's plans, Kandiah Yogarasa, popularly known as `PLOTE' Mohan. Yogarasa lay dead on a Colombo sidewalk in broad daylight, blood oozing from five gunshot wounds.

Mohan's killing drew to an end a decade-long story of covert operations against the LTTE inside rebel-held territories in the east and the north.

Mohan parted ways with the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) in 1994. However, his accumulated resources and tricks of the trade fetched him a new ally - sections of the Sri Lanka military. Mohan had joined the PLOTE after the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. He received arms training in India. Under the nom de guerre `Tamilchelvan', he was in charge of a training camp at Orathanadu in Tamil Nadu's Tanjavur district. On his return, he was deployed in Vavuniya in the north and had left to Batticaloa district in the east after a fight with the LTTE.

Non-LTTE Tamil political groups described him as "the man the LTTE feared the most". Mohan's utility to the Sri Lanka Army intelligence rose when, in the late 1990s, the security forces conceived of a unit to strike inside the rebel territory. Later, when the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs) were formed, Mohan's role increased. According to sources, he is said to have been involved directly in attacks against the LTTE's senior leadership in the run-up to the February 2002 ceasefire agreement. When the Sri Lanka Army's Deep Penetration Units (DPUs) attached to the LRRPs were on the prowl in rebel-held Sri Lanka, Mohan is said to have helped them in selecting targets, choosing the location and planning the modus operandi of the attacks.

Among those killed during the DPU operations were `Col.' Shankar, the head of LTTE's fledgling rebel air wing and military intelligence, on September 26, 2001, (he was a relative and confidant of V. Prabakaran), Gangai Amaran (deputy leader of Sea Tigers) and Nizaam (Batticaloa-Amparai intelligence chief).

Mohan was reportedly lured to the normally busy R.A. De Mel Mawatha (Duplication Road) by someone he apparently trusted on a Poya (Full Moon) holiday (July 31) and shot dead with a .9 mm pistol.

Military analysts described the killing as "a prize hit" for the Tigers who were "gunning for him for several years". A lone eyewitness to the killing was, however, unable to describe the killers and was not sure if the assailants had escaped on a motorcycle or a van, a senior police officer told reporters at the scene of the crime.

Eight spent .9 mm cartridges were found near Mohan's body. There were no other casualties, primarily because the normally crowded road was nearly empty as it was a holiday.

A military analyst saw in the slaying of Mohan "a clear indication that the LTTE is not for a peaceful, negotiated settlement". Expressing concern over the continued attacks on anti-LTTE operatives, defence analysts said the government was "using them and abandoning them to appease the LTTE" so that it would come back to talks.

Defence analysts see the murder as "a pre-emptive strike by the Tigers... as Mohan would have played a key role when fighting resumes". The LTTE did not comment on the killing.

The murder of Mohan is somewhat similar to the May 1999 killing of another eastern paramilitary operative, P. Ganeshmoorthy (also known as Razeek), who headed a military unit of the splintered Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). A defence analyst said: "While Razeek carried out overt military strikes, Mohan was covert and had penetrated the Tigers. Both were effective."

With Mohan out of the LTTE's way and Karuna's political plans in disarray, the Tigers are likely to call the shots in the coming months.

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