Predators as prey

Published : Oct 13, 2001 00:00 IST

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam finds itself at the receiving end of a series of ambush operations directed at its senior leaders.

THE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka is in the throes of a crisis. The past few months have seen a number of its senior and prominent leaders being targeted in landmine ambushes. Some have been fatal. The latest in the list is Vaithilingam Sornalingam alias "Colonel" Shankar, the head of the LTTE's air wing and military intelligence division. The situation is ironical because the predators have now become the prey.

Past decades have seen Tiger operatives killing a number of persons regarded as enemies of the organisation in various parts of the island. The LTTE was able to choose the time, the place and the targets for operations of this type, and execute them meticulously. The Sri Lankan authorities were unable to prevent such attacks or bring to book their perpetrators. But now the tables have seemingly been turned on the Tigers. A pattern is emerging, where several senior LTTE activists are targeted in a systematic fashion in Tiger-controlled regions.

Shankar, killed on September 26 in a claymore device attack in the Oddusuddan area of Mullaithivu district in the northern mainland of the Wanni, was the highest-ranking and most senior Tiger leader to be killed in this manner (see box). Earlier, Gangai Amaran, deputy leader of the LTTE's "Kadal Puli" (Sea Tiger) division, was killed along with his bodyguard in a similar explosion near Akkaraayan Kulam in Kilinochchi district.

In the eastern province, Nizaam, the head of the LTTE's Batticaloa-Amparai political wing, was killed when the motorcycle he was travelling on was targeted for a claymore device blast at Vaathakalmadhu in Nallathanni Odai, about 36 km southwest of Batticaloa town. The LTTE's eastern zone communications chief Mano was killed in an incident at Patharaimadam, about 6 km to the west of Valaiiravu in Batticaloa district. There were three attempts on the life of Ramanan, the LTTE's intelligence wing leader for Batticaloa and Amparai districts - at Vellaveli, Palugaamam and Karadiyanaaru.

Other important leaders too have survived assassination attempts in the northern province. Balraj, deputy military commander of the LTTE, escaped miraculously when his vehicle was targeted at Nainamadhu in the Wanni. Likewise, Jeyam, a senior commander, escaped an attempt at Nedunkerni. The political wing chief, S.P. Thamilchelvan, was targeted twice. One attempt was made near Iranai Iluppaikulam, where his official vehicle hit a landmine. Thamilchelvan was not in the vehicle. His deputy, travelling in it, survived with injuries. The other attack was at Kokkavil in Kilinochchi when Thamilchelvan was on his way to meet a Norwegian peace delegation at Mallavi. A landmine exploded killing a bodyguard who travelled in a vehicle that followed the Tiger leader.

This campaign of ambushes has reportedly angered LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran and has, understandably, caused consternation among LTTE cadre. A virtual state of emergency has been declared in the LTTE regions of the Wanni. "Colonel" Balraj, the LTTE's deputy military commander and second in command to Prabakaran in military matters, has been appointed a special commander for the Wanni region and entrusted with a special task and powers by the LTTE supremo. According to informed sources, Balraj's immediate goal is to halt the attacks on LTTE leaders and apprehend those responsible for them.

In its press releases, the LTTE has accused a "deep penetration commando unit of the Sri Lankan Army" of being responsible for Shankar's killing and the other incidents. Pro-LTTE Tamil journals published abroad have stated that the attacks are perpetrated by small teams of special force commandos trained by a Western power. Such squads are said to infiltrate, through the jungle terrain of the Wanni, into LTTE-controlled zones and carry out the attacks. They are supposed to lie in wait with remote controls, trigger the devices at appropriate moments and leave the area immediately.

It is also suspected that some Tamils living in LTTE-controlled areas are collaborating with the Sri Lankan armed forces. They are suspected of providing intelligence, information, supplies and even safe houses for the assailants. These alleged collaborators are suspected to be undisclosed members or former members of the various non-LTTE Tamil militant groups, now living as civilians in the Wanni. Another theory is that the suspects are persons sympathetic to former LTTE deputy leader Mahathaya, who was executed for allegedly conspiring against Prabakaran. The possibility of ordinary people acting as mercenaries is also not ruled out. Tamil militants associated with the Army as "paramilitary personnel" may also be responsible for the attacks.

Interestingly, while the LTTE officially blames a "deep penetration team", the Tigers in the eastern region have taken punitive action against Tamil civilians. In the eastern region, the LTTE controls the hinterland to the west of the Batticaloa lagoon, known as Paduvaan- karai (the shore of the setting sun) while the government controls the littoral regions to the east of the lagoon, known as Eluvaankarai (the shore of the rising sun). Initially, there were five crossing points across the lagoon for people commuting between the regions. Recently, the Tigers closed down three of them, in order to facilitate a greater and more intensive scrutiny of "infiltrators" and check whether explosive devices are smuggled in.

In the eastern region, the LTTE also undertook a massive search-and-arrest operation. Several persons were detained and interrogated. The LTTE claimed that 37 explosive devices, concealed in vantage points and stored in safehouses, were discovered following the investigation. At least five Tamil civilians were executed for their alleged involvement in the assassination campaign. Two of the executions were gruesome. The victims, who were first forced to make a public confession, were compelled to kill themselves using the explosives they were accused of possessing. It was alleged that these persons had betrayed the Tamil cause for financial remuneration offered by the government.

However, the LTTE's approach in the northern region seems to be different. It suspects that the deep-penetration teams originate from the Manal Aaru or Weli Oya military complex, situated in a strategic location interdicting the territorial contiguity of the Tamil-dominated northern and Tamil-majority eastern provinces. In an attempt to prevent or at least contain suspected infiltration, the Tigers are now establishing a tight security cordon around the forward defence lines of the Weli Oya complex.

The LTTE has also intensified "border" security along the southern line of control, between Vidathaltheevu in the western Mannar district and Kumulamunai in the eastern Mullaithivu district. The civilian militia, known as "ellaippadai" or border force, is involved, along with regular cadre, in such operations. However, the demarcation line is almost 190 km long and consists of several jungle tracts that are quite porous. If the LTTE is to seal off this border effectively, it has to redeploy a substantial number of fighters from its strategically important northern front along the Kilaly-Eluthumadduvaal-Nagar Kovil axis. There is a severe logistical dilemma here.

According to a Tamil resident of the Wanni with whom this writer spoke over telephone, the LTTE has started a systematic "search, detain and interrogate" campaign. Regular fighters and members of the LTTE's police force and intelligence wings are engaged in this. The LTTE's "Leopards" commando unit and civilian militia cadre are combing the jungles to flush out any deep-penetration squads trekking there.

A SIGNIFICANT feature of the ambushes is that the targets in all cases are senior and important leaders of the LTTE. In view of this fact, the leaders have been asked to take certain precautions. For instance, senior LTTE figures, who travel in jeeps or are accompanied by back-up vehicles with bodyguards or travel in convoys, have been asked to avoid such practices. The Tigers have usually used minor, interior roads more often than major open roads used by civilians. Almost all the assassinations and assassination attempts occurred on these roads. Now the LTTE has begun to use the main roads.

Meanwhile, the government has denied that the security forces are responsible for the assassination campaign. The government says that the attacks are the result of a bitter power struggle within the organisation. Government propaganda has been based on this line of argument in the past few months, in a bid to convince the nation and the world that internal squabbles, and not governmental action, are responsible for this state of affairs.

If this claim were true, the LTTE would certainly not have publicised the killings or the assassination attempts. It would have been practical to keep the matter under wraps, as was done in the case of the Mahathaya episode. If the LTTE wanted it to be so, there was little chance of the incidents coming to light. Instead, the Tigers continue to publicise such incidents, resulting, in the process, in an erosion in the myth of invincibility surrounding it. Moreover, the scale and scope of the attacks point to factors that cannot be explained away by theories of internecine strife.

Another pointer to the possibility of state agencies being involved in this campaign is the presence of an occasional snippet in the Colombo media about strikes made by "long-range assault groups". However, the references are vague and no details are given. Earlier, the media carried columns by military experts explaining the need to launch effective assault operations like the current ones to penetrate LTTE areas and selectively target Tiger leaders. The example cited was the American and British special force operations of a similiar nature in confrontations elsewhere. The experts felt that this was better than conducting frontal operations which resulted in heavy losses. Now there is an apparent "silence" about these ideas in the media, probably because practical action is being taken. It is also noteworthy that the security forces have intensified security in the southern areas in the aftermath of Shankar's killing, fearing reprisals.

If the Sri Lankan forces are indeed responsible for this ambush campaign but not publicising it, then that situation too is fraught with irony. The Sri Lankan armed forces have faced a lot of negative publicity for various "failures" in its operations against the LTTE. Now they are supposedly engaged in an effective campaign that is affecting the LTTE. The Tigers' territorial impregnability is being assailed, their chief leaders are being targeted, and the cadres are being demoralised. Although the LTTE blames the armed forces publicly, those responsible for the campaign are unable to take credit for it. This is because of both the confidential nature of the exercise and the reluctance in official circles to admit that an assassination campaign is being conducted.

Whosoever is conducting them, the LTTE is under severe threat from the operations. The LTTE's inability to prevent or even reduce the extent of the threat, and also the fact that none of the alleged perpetrators has been caught, are damaging. If the campaign continues and the Tigers are unable to check it, their efficiency will be doubted. Also, the theory of the attacks being an "internal affair" of the LTTE will gather credence. Another problem for the LTTE is the need to deplete other fronts to deploy additional personnel necessary to seal its borders completely. Intensive searches, detentions and interrogation of members of the public in a bid to weed out suspected collaborators are likely to alienate the population living in areas under its control.

Recent responses by the LTTE leadership to the operations indicate that the LTTE, while going all out to eradicate the danger, will also avenge the killings. Shankar in particular was a close friend and long-time comrade-in-arms of Prabakaran. His death is unlikely to be left unavenged. An LTTE statement said: "The LTTE leadership shares the Tamil people's outrage and treats the killing of a senior leader with utmost gravity." It remains to be seen what type of action the LTTE will take in this regard.

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