The Web Sri Lanka In Focus

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Sri Lanka pushes war ahead despite Indian pressure

Sri Lankan troops advanced deeper into areas held by the rebel Tamil Tigers after smashing through a 10-km (6-mile) trench line that has been the site of heavy combat for two months, the military said on Tuesday.

And with diplomatic pressure mounting from New Delhi since last week, officials said Sri Lanka's government was planning trips to India and Pakistan to shore up support for a war it is increasingly certain it can win.

On Tuesday, the Defence Ministry said soldiers fought across massive earthen dams and trenches built by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at Akarrayankulam and Vannirakulam, amid heavy monsoon downpours.

"Intense fighting was reported between troops and the LTTE over the long earth bund (dam) at Vannerikulam and Akkarayankulam, as troops made their first moves after consolidating their newly gained positions," the Defence Ministry said in a statement.

The military gave no casualty figures for the fighting.

The army on Monday said it had captured those areas after weeks of battles in the north of the Indian Ocean island nation, where it is trying to end a 25-year-old civil war.

The LTTE has been fighting for a separate homeland in the north and east for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil people.

Both areas are a little more than 10 km southwest of the rebels' capital of Kilinochchi along a curving front that extends west to the port of Nachikkudah, also the site of heavy fighting for weeks as the army moves up the coast and pushes east.


Soldiers are advancing toward Kilinochchi on several fronts, and the military says some of them are within 2 km of a target as strategic as it is symbolic.

"They have dug a lot of trenches to slow down our advance," retired General Hamilton Wanasinghe, a former Sri Lankan army commander and defence secretary, told Reuters. "It must be tough going otherwise we would have cleared there by now."

Defence analyst Iqbal Athas said Vannirakulam was "just one more village on the way" to Kilinochchi amid resistance and now heavy rain that has turned roads to muddy quagmires.

"It is indeed a long slog, and what it tells us is that contrary to what was expected, there has been heavy resistance and there will be more," Athas said.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government, dominated by the ethnic Sinhalese majority, is increasingly confident of winning a war that has energized his political base.

Local media on Tuesday reported that his brothers, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and special presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa, would head to Pakistan and India respectively to strengthen defence ties amid heightened tensions with New Delhi.

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged Sri Lanka to find a political end the war and protect 230,000 displaced Tamil civilians, after protests led by Tamil legislators in his ruling coalition.

"The defence secretary may visit India and Pakistan for the purpose of tightening cordial relations on defence affairs," Defence spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella said.

Pakistan provides weapons to Sri Lanka, which diplomats say rankles India but gives Colombo some leverage against a regional giant that has always been a major player in the war.

Singh and Rajapaksa spoke over the weekend on the phone, and the Rajapaksa's office in a statement released on Tuesday said the issue of stopping the war never came up in the discussion.

He also reiterated the fact that the government is providing aid to refugees from the fighting, the statement said.

Most analysts expect India to do little except press for political devolution deal for Tamils, since it already provides Sri Lanka non-lethal military equipment and intelligence about the LTTE, which it has designated a terrorist group.


Army advances will not end war

EVENT: The Sri Lanka Army is poised to capture the key rebel town of Kilinochchi, an army spokesman said yesterday.

SIGNIFICANCE: The army has advanced along the western coast to within two miles of Kilinochchi, the administrative centre for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The capture of Kilinochchi would inflict a significant blow against the rebel group, prompting the government to say that it may soon win the three-decade civil war.

ANALYSIS: The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) has been significantly strengthened since the last phase of the conflict against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which resulted in a battlefield stalemate. It now says that the rebels are on the verge of collapse. The government in Colombo, which since mid-2006 has made crushing the LTTE its priority, also says that that the Tigers will soon be wiped out and the war over.

The recent advances follow two years of intense campaigning -- first in the island's east (in 2006-7) and, since 2007, in a four-front offensive against the LTTE's northern stronghold. The rebels have been running a mini-state from the town of Kilinochchi, the largest town in the Vanni region, for over a decade. Its capture would be a major blow to their cause.

Yet the LTTE show distinct signs of resilience, and a more realistic outlook is for further protracted and sustained conflict. The government's planned increases in defence expenditure and the military's fresh recruitment drives suggest that preparations for this eventuality are under way.

Questionable claims. Government assertions of imminent victory are based on equating the military's recent territorial gains to LTTE weakness. However, the SLA has made similarly impressive territorial advances before without conclusive results. The Tigers have appeared on the brink of defeat on other occasions, notably in 1999, but later proved able to blunt the state's offensive and inflict serious defeats.

There are a number of reasons why government hopes of an impending, strategic victory are unlikely to materialise:

1. Tactical difficulties. To destroy the LTTE, the military must achieve several goals:

It must steadily advance into the rebels' longstanding jungle base areas in Mullaitivu, in the eastern Vanni.

It must maintain effective control over previously captured territories -- including the sprawling eastern province and the Jaffna peninsula.

At the same time, it needs to protect Colombo and the south from bomb attacks.

A conclusive victory would require fulfilling these objectives simultaneously, which is a tall order.

2. Prior experience. Given these tactical needs, the military's recent territorial gains are inconclusive. When the LTTE launched a counter-offensive in 1999, the military controlled more of the Vanni region than it does at present. It held the ground from Kilinochchi's northern outskirts through Elephant Pass and all of Jaffna, and was advancing steadily up central and western Vanni. The LTTE then controlled only Kilinochchi town (which it recaptured in 1998, having lost it to the SLA in 1996) and part of Mullaitivu district. Nonetheless, in that limited space the rebels were able to mass sufficient troops and material for a significant counter-offensive, recapturing the entire Vanni area and going on to overrun Elephant Pass and southern Jaffna.

3. LTTE tactics. The SLA has significantly expanded in recent years, both in terms of numbers (from 100,000 to 160,000) and firepower. Yet the LTTE have done likewise. They had just two artillery pieces in 1999 but now have several more, as well as a large number of heavy mortars. They have also expanded their naval wing and acquired a rudimentary air force.

As in 1999, the LTTE's true fighting capacity is not known with certainty. That they have not resisted the SLA more strongly thus far is being interpreted as weakness. Yet it can also be argued that the LTTE strategy is more in line with a protracted 'war of the flea', with a strategic stalemate as the goal.

Resilient LTTE. The military is already facing significant troop shortages. Casualties and desertions are increasing, especially in key front-line units. Civilian hospitals in Colombo and the SLA garrison towns of Vavuniya and Anuradhapura are handling a steady stream of seriously wounded soldiers.

At the same time, guerrilla attacks and bombings are increasing in government-controlled areas. Although each individual attack may not be serious, large numbers of military personnel are tied up in efforts to pacify and/or protect these areas:

A recent attack in Anuradhapura killed a prominent former general together with 30 civilians, demonstrating the LTTE's ability to strike a key logistical and operational town for the SLA.

There are persistent reports that hundreds of guerillas have re-infiltrated the east, from where they were driven out after a year of campaigning by the SLA.

There have also been regular attacks against troops, police and Sinhalese civilians in the south, including occasional (albeit small) blasts in Colombo.

Difficult terrain. The military has had to work unusually hard to secure territorial gains on the northern battlefronts. In principle, its new assets and simultaneous assaults (on the Mannar, Jaffna, Vavuniya and Weli Oya fronts) should have delivered quicker gains.

Moreover, it is significant that Mannar is the only front where the LTTE have fallen back. A marshy area that is short of drinking water, prone to flooding in the monsoons and parched in the hot season, it is particularly harsh terrain for a protracted war. Until the LTTE's strongholds in Mullaitivu are captured, the SLA will need to hold Mannar -- especially since the government has made much political capital from its gain there.

Rebel staying power. The Tigers are suffering casualties, but the numbers are much lower than the government claims. More importantly, they are neither unprecedented nor intolerable for the rebels, who have previously demonstrated an ability to sustain high attrition rates:

The government claims that the LTTE have suffered 8,000 casualties this year. Yet examination of the data together with local press commentary and LTTE statements indicate that this is an exaggeration. A more credible estimate of LTTE losses in 2008 is approximately 2,000.

Even in 1997, the most intense year of the earlier phase of the conflict, the LTTE lost almost the same number. This represented more than 10% of the rebels' numerical strength that year. They nonetheless proved capable of a major counter-offensive in 1999 and 2000.

Crucially, while the military's 'teeth' units have been campaigning relentlessly for over two years, the LTTE's core forces have yet to be committed to battle. In the past year of resistance, the rebels have mainly deployed units of new recruits, including those withdrawn from the east, stiffened by a few experience cadres. Where core units have been committed, especially in Jaffna, SLA advances have been quickly stopped, often with heavy losses.

CONCLUSION: The military has made impressive territorial gains this year, but this does not amount to a strategic weakening of the LTTE. Similar territorial gains made in the late 1990s against a much weaker LTTE were swiftly reversed in a year-long counter-offensive which the exhausted military could not resist. In assessing the LTTE's capacity for survival, the rebels' present territorial confines should be compared to those of 1995-1999, rather than that of the 2002-2006 ceasefire period. A swift victory by the military is highly unlikely.

Source: Oxford Analytica

India hasn’t demanded halting war against LTTE: Rajapaksa

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa Tuesday asserted that there was no demand from the Indian government to halt the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the northern part of the island.

Rajapaksa made the statement while addressing Sri Lankan media heads and editors at his heavily-guarded official residence Temple Trees.

‘In response to a question, President Rajapaksa said that in the telephone conversation with the Indian Prime Minister (on Saturday) there was no reference to the stopping of military operations against the terrorism of the LTTE. He (the President) had made it very clear that the operations were against the LTTE,’ a statement from the president’s office said.

Rajapaksa’s statement comes at a time when Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, at an all-party meeting in Chennai last week, said that all 40 MPs from the state would resign if India did not intervene by Oct 29 to stop the ‘genocide’ against Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Fifteen MPs, including two central ministers, as also Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi, have already submitted post-dated resignation letters to the chief minister.

However, Rajapaksa has told local media heads and editors that he ‘was aware of the political pressures in India at the moment, especially considering the reality of coalition politics and the diverse interests that surface in such situations’.

‘President Rajapaksa said that the friendly relations between Sri Lanka and India remain very strong. India had always helped us when necessary and supported us in international fora,’ the statement from his office said.

Claiming that it was the ‘primary responsibility’ of his government to look after all the citizens, Rajapaksa said that he carries out ‘this responsibility to the fullest especially with regard to the people who are temporarily displaced in the north, due to the ongoing military operations to defeat terrorism.’

‘There is a wrong impression created in Tamil Nadu that this not been done. This is furthest from the correct position. All these are our citizens and we take every measure to look after and provide for them,’ the president was quoted as saying.

Addressing the meeting, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said: ‘The recent developments in Tamil Nadu and the recent activities there did not reflect the policies of New Delhi.

‘The message of New Delhi has been that it stands for the rights of the Tamil people and against the LTTE,’ he added.

Bogollagama has invited Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to visit Colombo to discuss the situation in the northern part of the island.

Renegade rebel leader Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, known as Karuna Amman, who now heads the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) said at the meeting, that the support of the people in Tamil Nadu to the Tamil people in the north ’should not’ become support for the LTTE.

‘Mr. Muralitharan (who was recently appointed as a government MP) added that the military operations in the Wanni could not be stopped immediately. With his own experience in fighting, it was his understanding that India could not bring an immediate stop to the fighting in Kargil (in Jammu and Kashmir when Pakistani troops intruded into the area in 1999),’ the president’s office statement said.


Lanka says Mukherjee can clarify humanitarian position himself

Sri Lanka has said that it has invited Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to the island nation to 'clarify' for himself the humanitarian position in the country.

Stating this Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said that his government was maintaining a close relationship with India and shared a similar stand on the issue of terrorism.

“With the view of clarifying the position of the Government with regard to the humanitarian mission in the North, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has invited the External Affairs Minister of India Pranab Mukherjee to Sri Lanka,” an official release on the minister’s statement said.

Quoting the minister, it said, the government has taken measures to brief the international community of its position.

As far as sending a delegation to India, Bogollagama said, the Government so far has not taken any decision. But a formal request has been forwarded to New Delhi inviting Mukherjee, the release said.

Referring to the decision of several parliamentarians of the Tamil Nadu Government to forward their letters of resignation to their Chief Minister, Bogollagama said: “none of them have resigned from their portfolios yet”.

The Foreign Minister said the goal of the Sri Lankan government was to bring democracy to all parts of the country and pointed out that it has become a reality in the East after the liberation of the province from the “clutches of terrorism”.

He affirmed that in the near future the people of Mullaittivu and Wanni will be a part of the democratic process in the country as terrorism will be is militarily defeated.


Rajapaksa opposes ceasefire with LTTE

The sudden tumult in Tamil Nadu seeking an immediate truce in Sri Lanka has hit President Mahinda Rajapaksa where it hurts him most. But he is most unlikely to go for a ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers, regardless of what India may desire.

Until Tamil Nadu's DMK and its allies dramatically told the Congress-led central government to pressure Colombo to cease its military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by Oct 29, Sri Lanka believed it was on the victory lap, with no roadblock seemingly in sight.

Despite a creaking economy, what favoured Rajapaksa was that large sections in the majority Sinhalese community shared his view that the costly conflict against the LTTE was about to end, on Colombo's terms.

The present war is thus the president's political lifeline. This is why his government contemptuously dismissed the LTTE's unilateral announcement of a ceasefire ahead of the SAARC summit in Colombo Aug 1-3.

Only the naïve can expect him to take a U-turn now when he thinks, rightly or wrongly, that his moment of glory is around the corner.

The military's ability to clear the eastern province of the LTTE and kill some of its key leaders besides putting the guerrillas on the defensive in the north made many to gloat in Colombo that success was finally in sight.

That is when Tamil Nadu erupted, taking Rajapaksa and his advisors by surprise.

In the process, India-Sri Lanka ties are under strain again. Anti-India sentiments are on the rise among the Sinhalese who until the other day were happy with New Delhi's military and diplomatic support.

But it will be a fallacy to believe that Rajapaksa's ire is caused solely by the unrest in Tamil Nadu. And it will be equally wrong to assume that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh needed the Tamil Nadu protests to wake him up to the grave and complex situation in Sri Lanka.

While Sri Lanka wants deeper economic and even strategic ties with India, this wavelength gets disturbed every time India does or says what Colombo thinks is interference in its affairs.

Much before Tamil Nadu's politicians roared this month, New Delhi had been telling Colombo repeatedly but quietly that there can be no military end to the conflict; there has to be a broader devolution process; bombings of civilian areas should stop; and the thousands displaced by fighting needed to be helped to rebuild their homes.

All these points have been reiterated this month - but loudly.

Contrary to public knowledge, Manmohan Singh has discussed Sri Lanka with select policy makers several times in recent years. But the one time he met the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance MPs in New Delhi, Rajapaksa was furious and asked editors in Colombo to "hammer" Manmohan Singh.

But Manmohan Singh has persisted. This August, in his close-door talks with some key political players in Colombo, he posed a pointed query: will Sri Lanka agree to a genuine power sharing minus the LTTE?

This makes many in Sri Lanka to feel that India may be trying to quietly keep alive the Tigers a la 1987 when it forced Colombo to halt a successful push into Jaffna, leading eventually to the India-Sri Lanka accord.

But 2008 is not the 1980s. The LTTE is today outlawed in various countries including India. And in this age of war on terror, no one can be seen to be on the side of a violently insurgent group.

However, there is one common thread to the 1980s and now: LTTE's determination to carve out an independent state and its confidence -- which its critics say is misplaced -- that the goal can be achieved yet.

The LTTE is telling the population in the area it controls that it needs only two more months to turn the tables on Colombo. It is also furiously enlisting Tamils, including the young, to fight on.

As for Sri Lanka, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who presides over the war machine, has declared that no purpose will be served by a ceasefire.

As long as both Colombo and the Tigers do not agree to sincerely embrace peace, there can be no lasting truce to a conflict that has foxed even Norway, veterans in conflict resolution. Can Tamil Nadu succeed where Oslo failed ?


India steps in, sends relief supplies to Lankan Tamils

India has started sending humanitarian aid for Tamil civilians trapped in the battle zone in north Sri Lanka.

Announcing this at a press conference here on Monday, convened ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip to China and Japan, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said some supplies had already been sent through agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. Some convoys had got through to the people trapped in the fighting and Delhi was trying to ensure that its supplies too reached them through such agencies.

Menon said India saw the present situation in Sri Lanka as a humanitarian crises. On the larger issue of settling the conflict, Delhi continued to suggest a political settlement within a united Sri Lanka in which all communities were "comfortable." He said the conflict could not be settled militarily.

Without giving details, Menon said the aid was expected to be in the form of food and other essential items for civilians trapped in or around the war zone, as the Sri Lankan army tried to wrest Killinochi town and others areas from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The present gesture makes a political point. But it cannot be compared with the 1987 symbolic air drop of relief supplies when the Sri Lankan military laid siege to Jaffna peninsula.

That was seen as arm-twisting by Delhi.

This time the relief supplies will go through international agencies, with Sri Lanka’s concurrence.

Menon did not confirm reports that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was travelling to Colombo to discuss the crises with the Sri Lankan government.

"Nothing is settled" on the issue, he said.


Victory against LTTE delayed by concern over civilains: Rajapaksa

As India was mounting pressure on Sri Lanka to ensure the safety of Tamil civilians caught in the war zone, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that the victory against the Tamil Tiger rebels was “prolonged” due his government’s “grave concern” for civilians, media reports here said Tuesday.Addressing an award ceremony in Colombo Monday, Rajapaksa, who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has said that his government has “directed the armed forces to refrain from inflicting any harm, even a scratch, to the innocent civilians who are being utilised as human shields by the terrorists in the Wanni”.

“The battle against terrorism, which we could convincingly win within a few days, is nevertheless prolonged due to the grave concern and the optimum caution exercised by the highly disciplined armed forces who are fighting under severe constraints, to cause no harm or loss to innocent, civilian human life,” the state-run Daily News quoted Rajapaksa as saying.

“We are proud to have an army which is complying and carrying out their humanitarian operations accordingly,” he said, claiming that Sri Lanka was the only country to provide “food and other essentials to a ruthless terrorist outfit, while simultaneously fighting them”.

In a telephone conversation with Rajapaksa, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had Saturday expressed India’s “deep concern on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the north of Sri Lanka, especially on the plight of the civilians caught in the hostilities”.

Stressing that “the safety and the security of these civilians must be safeguarded at all costs”, Singh also said that “the rights and the welfare of the Tamil community of Sri Lanka should not get enmeshed in the on-going hostilities against the LTTE”.

Singh also reiterated that there was “no military solution” to the conflict and urged Rajapaksa “to start a political process for a peacefully negotiated political settlement within the framework of a united Sri Lanka”.

India’s reiteration of concern for Tamil civilians in the island’s north came a few days after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, at an all-party meeting last week, threatened that all 40 MPs from Tamil Nadu would resign if India did not intervene to stop the “genocide” against Tamils in Sri Lanka before Oct 29.

Fifteen MPs of DMK, a key ally of the Manmohan Singh government and the ruling party of Tamil Nadu, have already handed over post-dated resignations over the situation in Sri Lanka.