Peace prospects, again

Print edition : May 26, 2001

After the end of a fierce four-day battle in northern Sri Lanka, a silver lining in the cloud has appeared.

ERIK SOLHEIM, the Norwegian special envoy entrusted with the unenviable task of facilitating bilateral talks for a negotiated settlement between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has vigorously re-started his shuttle diplomacy. After shuttling between Europe and Asia for nearly a year, the peace broker had seemingly cleared several hurdles - when disaster struck.

Erik Solheim, the Norwegian envoy. Signs of progress on the peace front are re-emerging thanks to the Norwegian efforts.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

A massive battle had erupted in Jaffna peninsula in the last week of April. The four days from April 24 to 28 saw a major confrontation taking place in the southern parts of the peninsula, although tensions were simmering and low-intensity clashes occurring during the preceding four-month period of a unilaterally declared ceasefire by the LTTE.

On December 24, 2000, the Tigers had announced a unilateral cessation of hostilities and thereafter extended it on a monthly basis. A sore point with the LTTE was that the government, which had rejected it outright, was not reciprocating positively. The ceasefire was due to lapse next on April 24. The LTTE "headquarters" in the northern mainland of the Wanni issued a press release on April 23 saying that it would not extend it.

In the statement the LTTE outlined its reasons for not doing so and blamed government "non-response" and "aggression" as the causes. At least 160 cadres had been killed and more than 400 injured during this ceasefire period, the LTTE charged. The Sri Lankan Navy had meanwhile destroyed LTTE boats on two occasions within a week, resulting in several LTTE casualties.

After four days of a destructive war, an intensive round of fighting has stopped and signs of progress on the peace front are emerging mainly due to Solheim's efforts. Also, the LTTE has reiterated its commitment to the Oslo-inspired peace process and declared cooperation.

Given the deep distrust on both sides of the other's motives, the Sri Lankan government was in no frame of mind to trust the LTTE's declared intention of continuing to participate in the peace process. There were intelligence reports that the LTTE was engaged in military preparations in the immediate vicinity of battle lines drawn in the lower areas of the peninsula.

The state saw these preparatory efforts as a prelude to a military onslaught by the LTTE and the security forces did not want to be taken by surprise. Since the LTTE had attacked first after announcing the end of a ceasefire in April 1995, the government forces thought of striking first in April. In a move to turn the tables on the LTTE, the government side decided to launch a preemptive operation aimed at crippling the LTTE and retaking strategic and symbolically important areas in the peninsula.

Motivation and morale were high among the security forces. No longer were they demoralised as in the days of "Operation Oyaatha Alaigal". "Unceasing Waves", launched in stages by the LTTE from November 1999 to May 2000, resulted in the government losing territory from Omanthai in the mainland to Pallai in the peninsula. The acquisition of massive artillery arsenals, including multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs), had boosted firepower significantly. The MBRLs can fire 40 shells a minute. These have a range of 20 km. Media reports state that the government is equipped to fire at least 16 MBRLs simultaneously if necessary. These MBRLs can in military jargon "suppress" an area of 30 sq km. The destruction of the largest town in the peninsula, Chavakachcheri, was carried out with MBRLs.

In addition, the state had obtained a number of tanks, armoured cars and chain track heavy vehicles from different countries. The latest shipment to arrive was from the Czech Republic. A new bomber air fleet called the "Ten Squadron" had also been formed, comprising Israeli K-fir and Russian MiG 27 aircraft. Most of these were manned by foreign pilots hired temporarily. Locals, however, were obtaining training fast. The large number of aerial missions undertaken during the ceasefire period were sorties meant to blood the trainees.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga.-FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS

Apart from increased air and firepower, an additional reason for high spirits was the performance record of the army in the past months. If the fall of Elephant Pass on April 22, 2000 marked the nadir of the army's misfortunes, thereafter the soldiers had recovered to some extent. The army's morale has been sufficiently boosted by its recent defensive and offensive successes. The defensive success was in early October last year when the LTTE launched the fourth phase of Oyaatha Alaigal. This was a massive onslaught on the army's defences on and around the Kilaly-Eluthumadduval-Nagarkovil axis. One reason for the army being able to stave off the LTTE attack successfully as compared to earlier disasters was its superior firepower. It is reported that exchanges of artillery fire by the army and the LTTE were on a ratio of ten to three.

The offensive successes were mainly related to a series of assaults code-named "Kini Hira" or Anvil that resulted in the recapture of some territory in the Thenmaratchy region. Subsequently, the LTTE withdrew from all of its positions in the southwestern coastal sector of Thenmaratchy. The main reason for the LTTE to withdraw from these areas was its inability to establish a viable land link. These vanguard positions were set up and consolidated behind enemy lines on this coast through maritime incursions from the mainland along the Jaffna lagoon.

Despite attempts to break the Kilaly-Eluthumadduval-Nagarkovil axis several times, the Tigers failed. As a result, logistical problems arose as supplying by lagoon from the Pooneryn sector became difficult. With the ceasefire, the LTTE had to shelve its plans to penetrate enemy lines. In that context, maintaining these positions became an unnecessary burden for the LTTE.

Thus the army had through the nine Anvil or Kini Hira operations from September 2000 to February 2001 recaptured 147 sq km of territory. Of this, 97 sq km was taken during the period when the LTTE observed a ceasefire. So with these offensive and defensive successes to bolster them on the one hand and increased firepower and air capability on the other, the armed forces were certainly on the upswing. This mood was reflected by President Chandrika Kumaratunga herself in media interviews.

When the opportunity arose on April 23, the green light was given for a military manoeuvre. The army's defence lines extended along the lower parts of the peninsula from Kilaly in the west to Nagarkovil in the east with Eluthumadduval in the centre. The LTTE had set up its defences parallel to and lower down along the axis of Allippalai-Muhamaalai-Kudarappu. Strate-gically, a downward thrust by the army to retake Elephant Pass would further relieve pressure on Jaffna town as well as Kodikaamam and Point Pedro. Symbolically, the capture of "Aanai Iravu" was important, apart from its military value.

The massive military offensive was code-named Agni Kheela, meaning fire flame or beam of fire in Sinhalese. The name perhaps indicated the element on which the Operation relied most - firepower both of the artillery and aerial kind. Two divisions consisting of approximately 16,000 personnel were involved on the ground. One was the elite 53 Division commanded by Major General Sivali Wanigasekera. It had been in the vanguard of most army operations and had tasted both success and failure. Trained in the United States, Pakistan and Britain, this division has crack commando units and other special forces, including airborne brigades.

The 55 Division commanded by Maj.-Gen. Sunil Tennekoon consisted mostly of light infantry and armoured brigades. Support was also drawn from the sappers and artillery units of the 52 Division. The overall operations commander was Maj.- Gen. Anton Wijendra, the northern army chief. His deputy was Maj.-Gen. Susil Chandrapala. After the operation, Colombo newspapers reported that intricate brainstorming war games had been played out by the army top brass before launching the operation. Every possible move and counter-move that the LTTE could make was analysed and counter-moves were planned.

The success of the earlier operations of Kini Hira was dependent to a great extent on the element of surprise. Selecting the time and venue, the army launched phased-out, short and sharp strikes from different points towards different directions at different times. Because an offensive to retake Elephant Pass had long been expected and the army forward lines were on a clear axis, the general direction of the expected offensive was well known to the LTTE. Elaborate defences had been prepared. A somewhat new strategy to counter the advance had also been worked out. LTTE literature claims that the blueprint was drawn up by Velupillai Prabakaran himself.

Agni Kheela was to be conducted in phases. Stage One was aimed at retaking the key junction of Pallai on the A-9 highway, Pallai town and its environs. Pallai is 14 km to the north of Elephant Pass. There is a road westwards from Pallai to Kilaly running through Puloppalai. Another road eastwards at Puthukkaadu junction close to Pallai runs through Soranpattu and Maasaar to the strategic Thalaiady-Maruthankerny junction on the east coast. Agni Kheela-1 aimed at Pallai was expected to take only two days.

Iyakkachchi and Elephant Pass were to be the targets in the next phase. It was estimated that Elephant Pass could be taken in seven days. Thereafter other phases were to be launched to take the east coast area from Maamunai to Uduthurai, the key Vettilaikerny-Kattaikaadu-Pullavely sector, the Paranthan-Pooneryn sector and so on. Experience showed that the retention and protection of the strategic Elephant Pass isthmus could be achieved only if these other areas could be held. (Incidentally, the LTTE first took these areas in phases before encircling Elephant Pass and enfeebling the forces guarding it.)

The Sri Lankan Army's main concerns while advancing on the ground have been artillery fire by the LTTE from entrenched positions and the danger of being ambushed. Its modus operandi has therefore been predictably four-fold. First, the intensive and abundant use of firepower through artillery and aerial bombardment to destroy fixed LTTE positions. Secondly, the deployment of crack commando and special forces in an expeditionary capacity with supporting fire from armoured units to seize territory. Thirdly, follow-up by the regular infantry along with armoured back-up to advance and occupy the positions captured. Fourthly, the induction of supporting troops to consolidate areas captured and set up permanent positions. The engineering or sapper units play a big role in this, clearing landmines, setting up roads, communications and so on.

Operation Agni Kheela too was conducted in the same manner, notwithstanding the planning input provided by foreign experts. Aerial and artillery bombardment started from around 4 p.m. on April 24. Thereafter, the first line of advance was from the Nagarkovil camp on the eastern Vadamaratchy coast through the Kudaarappu and Maamunai areas. This began around 11 p.m. on April 24. Unchecked, this column could have moved along the coastal axis through Chembiyanpattru towards Thalaiady. But the LTTE artillery units struck back. The navy stationed its gunboats close to the coast and shelled the shores. After heavy exchange of fire, the Nagarkovil troops went back to their original positions by the evening of April 24. It is unclear whether the Nagarkovil move was a genuine thrust or whether it was a diversionary tactic to divide and dilute Tiger resistance.

The bulk of 53 Division broke out of the Kilaly area around 1-45 a.m. on April 25. The troops advanced in a southern and southeastern direction. The 55 Division began its advance around 3-30 a.m. on the same day from the Eluthumadduval area. This was in two columns. One moved on the eastern and the other on the western side of the Jaffna-Kandy road or A-9 highway towards the general direction of Pallai in a southwards thrust. If successful, the troops from Kilaly and Eluthumadduval would have linked up at Pallai. April 25 saw the troops advance slowly, with the Tigers offering only limited mortar fire. Forward movement on the ground was preceded by aerial strikes by at least five K-firs and MiG 27s. Artillery deployment was on too.

The troops from Kilaly advanced nearly 8 km but could not move beyond certain positions in the Vidathalpallai-Allippalai-Puloppalai sector by evening. No link-up was effected with the 55 Division. At nightfall, the LTTE began firing its artillery. Dawn saw more intensified attacks. By the morning of April 26, the troops had moved back to their original positions in Kilaly. The navy, which has a small base in Kilaly, had stationed extra boats in the lagoon. These were used to ferry injured persons back to the Mandaitheevu and Kankesanthurai harbours.

The 55 Division fared somewhat better. It succeeded initially in advancing about 4 km on the eastern and 2 km on the western side of the A-9. Faced with resistance from the LTTE, the troops retreated on the east. A link-up between both columns of the same division on either side of the road resulted in the army temporarily gaining territory to the extent of five to 7 sq km. This was in the general Muhamaalai area encompassing places like Ithaavil and Kovilkaadu. Ironically this was more or less the same area which a unit commanded by Balraj, Prabakaran's deputy, had taken last year in a penetrative operation to interdict the A-9.

The army thereafter attempted to consolidate the captured area, establishing permanent positions. After trying to do so in the face of stiff resistance, the army decided to call it quits after nightfall. By 5-30 a.m. on April 28 all troops were back at Eluthumadduval. Agni Kheela-1 had been called off after suffering extensive casualties. The Sri Lankan Opposition has called it an ignominious defeat for the government caused by faulty planning.

IN retrospect, the contours of the LTTE strategy in combating Agni Kheela are clear. Its heavily fortified bunkers and trenches provided safety during the aerial and artillery onslaughts. Except for a lucky, direct hit, there was no danger. The continuous bombing of civilian structures by the air force in the past on the assumption that they were Tiger positions indicates that solid intelligence of actual LTTE presence was absent. In direct war, the well-camouflaged bunkers and trenches were obviously not targeted. Shells and bombs falling on shrub jungle set off fires. It is reported that scouting aircraft misconstrued the "rising clouds of smoke" as evidence of destroyed Tiger positions. The LTTE enhanced this illusion by lying low for a while soon after artillery and air strikes. This encouraged ground troops to advance confidently. Then the Tigers pounced on them.

The LTTE had long been expecting a military advance towards the Elephant Pass. It had anticipated the possible lines of advance. Booby traps, landmines and extensive stepmines or "Johnnies" had been set up on those routes. For effective "minefielding", the Tigers had planted more mines in places where they expected soldiers to scatter and flee to when attacked. So after letting the soldiers advance after tremendous use of firepower, the LTTE struck back with artillery and field guns. Soldiers also faced even more mines and booby traps. Then the Tigers encircled and engaged them with small arms and mortar. In the case of soldiers trying to establish firm positions, the Tigers launched a direct assault on them, resulting in their withdrawal.

The Tiger resistance strategy was this: lying low during deployment of firepower by the enemy and then playing dead by remaining inactive; encouraging troops to attack and then launching artillery barrages; anticipating the lines of advance and saturating areas with mines; surrounding and conducting ambushes and attacks with mortars and small arms fire; and encircling and launching ferocious onslaughts with large numbers on fixed positions. Generally the Tigers are passive during day-time for fear of aerial attacks and active under cover of darkness. The Tiger approach was a blend of conventional positional warfare and unconventional guerilla tactics.

From the government's perspective, two further disappointments were the ineffectiveness of its MRBLs and other destructive artillery. These are of great use in defending positions against direct onslaughts but of little use in offensive warfare against an enemy entrenched in rural surroundings. Such artillery could destroy towns and cities with minimum damage to actual enemy personnel, as seen in Chavakachcheri. But the terrain in the lower parts of the peninsula are sparsely populated with dense shrub jungles, woods, coconut and palmyra groves, fields, moors, gardens and marshes. There were no specific targets to destroy. Likewise, aerial bombardment had little practical effect.

The second disappointment was the lack of a useful role for the navy. Speedboats and water jets with guns patrolled the Jaffna lagoon on the western side while bigger gunboats with sophisticated cannons were stationed off the eastern coast. It has been reported that this was done to prevent the Sea Tigers from ferrying supplies by water. If this was so, it was a miscalculation. The Tigers control the upper mainland and the lower peninsula. They control the three accredited entry points to the peninsula, namely Elephant Pass, the Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai-Sangupiddy sector and the Vettilaikerny-Kaddaikkaadu-Thalaiaddy coastal areas. As such, there was no logistical need to use the lagoon or the sea because there was direct land-based contact. This by itself provided greater military advantage to the LTTE. Sea Tiger boats, however, did engage the navy in long-range, heavy duty firing.

The four-day battle that shattered the comparative calm of four months of an unreciprocated ceasefire resulted in significant casualties. The army claims that it lost 221 men, including nine officers, while 1,145 personnel sustained injuries. Since some personnel are in a critical condition, the death roll could rise to over 240. Many of the injured lost their limbs. Another 83, including five officers, were reported missing. The LTTE, on the other hand, claimed that more than 400 soldiers were killed and over 2,000 wounded.

Actual figures were hard to gather but it was reported that several Colombo and provincial hospitals were tending to the war wounded. The LTTE returned 93 bodies of soldiers through the International Red Cross and claimed it had cremated the rest with military honours. The government asserts that more than 300 Tigers have been killed and about 500 wounded. The LTTE denies this and says that only 75 cadres were killed in the four days: four on the first day, 16 on the second, 28 on the third and 27 on the fourth. It does not reveal the number of injured but LTTE sources estimate this to be around 200. An Mi-24 helicopter was hit by the LTTE. One main battle tank was destroyed and two were damaged by the Tigers. There are no reports of prisoners being taken by either side.

AN awards ceremony held in the north by the LTTE following its "success" in combating Agni Kheela revealed a lot about its military strength and tactics. "Col." Theepan was in overall charge of the defences and later the counter-offensive. At one stage, the government troops had fanned out to a width of about 8 km and were advancing. These advancing troops were met in the Kilaly-Eluthumadduval sector by a combined LTTE force. These consisted of the Sothiya women's brigade led by "Lt. Col." Suthanthira on the western flank. Suthanthira herself was killed. The Maalathi women's brigade was deployed along the eastern flank, commanded by "Col." Vidhusha. Incidentally, both Maalathi and Sothiya, after whom the women's brigades are named, were killed during fighting with the Indian Peace-Keeping Force.

The mid-section was manned by the Charles Anthony infantry division and cadres of the women's brigade. The commanders were Thurga, Veeramathy, Gokul and Lawrence, all of them designated "Lieutenant-Colonels". "Col." Bhanu was in charge of the Kittu artillery corps and the Victor armoured unit. Balraj, second in command of the military wing, was in charge of a second line of defence. But there was no need for it to be engaged. The counter-offensive was led by Theepan, who also coordinated the first line of defence. The troops moving out from Nagarkovil were resisted by the Ellaippadai and Sirappu Ellaippadai - meaning border force and special border force. These are civilian militias coordinated by "Lt. Col." Chutta. The Sea Tigers were led by "Commander" Arivu.

Interestingly, the Jeyanthan infantry division raised in the Eastern Province was not used for this round of fighting. This division commanded by Karuna is said to be relocated to the east now, according to intelligence reports. The LTTE says in its overseas journals that planes were engaged in bombing sprees at 10-minute intervals at the height of the conflict. It also alleges that 50,000 shells and bombs were fired over four days.

EVEN as Sri Lanka-watchers braced themselves for worse, a silver lining emerged. International opinion was forcefully against the escalated fighting and favoured restraint. India, Canada and the U.S. were in the forefront of this. Solheim himself called the renewed fighting a setback for the peace process. With the four-day war having strained the capabilities of the combatants and international pressure mounting, the opening for peace widened. Solheim contacted Anton Balasingham, the LTTE chief negotiator in London, and arrived in Colombo on April 30 for a three-day visit. He met President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Indian High Commissioner Gopalkrishna Gandhi twice each. He also met Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe and also Canadian High Commissioner Ruth Archibald who had returned from a trip to the Wanni after meeting LTTE political chief S.P. Thamilchelvan. During discussions, the desirability of a ceasefire or cessation of hostilities was emphasised. President Kumaratunga agreed with this in principle but reserved the right to consult the defence top brass. Solheim left for Oslo via London on May 3.

President Kumaratunga summoned defence officials for a National Security Council meeting on May 4. She found them to be amenable to a ceasefire being announced. Earlier, the top officers had vehemently objected to any ceasefire ahead of talks. Now they were ready for a time-bound ceasefire. This change of heart, according to defence analysts, was shaped by the experience of the costly four-day war. The armed forces were not in a position to launch a fresh major operation for some three months. The Service chiefs also wanted more arms to be procured before starting a fresh round of serious operations. Besides, it was thought preferable to bring about a ceasefire and prevent the Tigers from conducting widespread military operations. So President Kumaratunga had no difficulty in achieving an agreement on a temporary ceasefire lasting three to six months. An undeclared cessation of hostilities where both sides suspended offensive action was also suggested. Oslo was informed.

Solheim then met Balasingham on May 9 in London. A ceasefire proposal was mooted. The LTTE was amenable to this in principle as it had been insisting on one as a prerequisite for talks. There were, however, some reservations and there were modalities to be worked out prior to it.

The LTTE position was that it would not agree to an undeclared ceasefire. The parties could informally agree to one initially but the actual ceasefire had to be declared and implemented formally and publicly. Secondly, the LTTE would not agree to a temporary or time-bound ceasefire. It had to be a firm and durable one honoured and adhered to by both sides in a mindset of sincerity and hope, Balasingham said. Thirdly, a mutually acceptable mechanism to monitor the ceasefire had to be set up. This envisages an international monitoring committee. Fourthly, there were certain codes of conduct to be drawn up.The armed forces had to observe a strict policy of non-harassment of civilians during the ceasefire period and any breach was to be treated as a ceasefire violation in itself. Tranquility on the forward lines would not be the only criterion governing the ceasefire.

The ceasefire question aside, the LTTE reiterated its earlier position on issues concerning the draft memorandum of understanding, the economic embargo and de-proscription. Balasingham informed Solheim that this was a definite LTTE position without room for dilution. Besides, the LTTE central committee had met in the Wanni and endorsed this position unanimously. The LTTE's chief negotiator assured the Norwegian facilitator that he would convey to Prabakaran all that was discussed. He would then communicate the LTTE's official response to the Norwegian envoy. In the meantime, Balasingham requested Solheim to convey the LTTE viewpoint in full to the government and to countries such as India. Solheim assured him on that count and said that he would discuss the matter further.

There was, however, some excitement on May 10 when an official press communique issued in Colombo quoted a letter sent by Kadirgamar to his Norwegian counterpart Thordjorn Jagland. According to the communique, Kadirgamar requested Oslo to draw up an embodying document as an agreement had been reached on several issues. Talks could begin on that basis, it was said.

This resulted in Balasingham complaining to Solheim. How could Colombo say there was agreement when there was none, he asked. This was a ruse to create an impression that peace talks were on and enlist the support of the Tamil political parties to help the government tide over the threat of a no-confidence motion planned to be moved by the Opposition, he alleged. The LTTE also issued a press release denying that there was any agreement.

Later Solheim told the news agency AFP that there was no agreement between the parties to the conflict. He declined to comment on the Sri Lankan official statement, but denied there was any basis for early talks. "The parties agree on certain issues but it is definitely too early to say that there is an agreement that can be the basis for talks," Solheim told AFP by telephone. "Norway will continue its shuttle diplomacy between the government and the LTTE to try to sort out the disputed matters." Later the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo also issued a clarification.

With that tempest in a tea cup over, diplomatic sources say Solheim will return to Colombo soon and, if positive responses are available, will undertake a trip to the Wanni and meet Prabakaran again. In that event, he will follow up with a visit to New Delhi.

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