War on terror revisited: Part 16
July 8, 2012, 12:00 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Having authorised coordinated air, artillery and naval strikes in response to an attempt made by the LTTE to assassinate Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka on the afternoon of April 25, 2006, President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for an urgent meeting with the UNP leadership.
In spite of being in Colombo, UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe skipped the Temple Trees meeting, leaving his Deputy Leader, Karu Jayasuriya, MP, to lead the party delegation. (Mahinda meets UNP team appeals for support––The Island of April 27).
The high profile assassination attempt proved that the first round of talks in Geneva between President Rajapaksa’s delegation and that of LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran on Feb 22 and 23, 2006 had been a farce. The second round, which was to begin on April 19, was put off to April 24 and 25 over the GoSL’s refusal to airlift senior LTTE personnel from the Eastern Province to Kilinochchi for talks among top leaders prior to resumption of the Geneva talks on April 24. The LTTE refused to sit down for talks unless the GoSL airlifted senior cadres.
The LTTE struck on April 25 inside army headquarters, hence there couldn’t have been any ambiguity with regard to its strategy. The LTTE was convinced that the GoSL would be ultimately provoked to quit the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). Having failed to cause President Chandrika Kumaratunga to terminate the CFA, the LTTE targeted the Army chief. Unfortunately, the GoSL acted as if it were blind to the LTTE game plan. The GoSL felt that talks could continue, while the armed forces responded to specific terrorist attacks. The GoSL ordered a two-day combined security forces assault on the LTTE, in response to the attempt on Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s life.
Retaliation for the first time
Retaliatory air and artillery strikes were the first since then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe finalised the CFA under the auspices of the Norwegian government. The assault had been marred by a single case of an accidental bombing of an area dominated by the navy in the Muttur area. President Rajapaksa’s predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga refrained from launching retaliatory strikes in the wake of Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination on the night of Aug 12, 2005. President Rajapaksa authorised the military to go ahead with limited operations subsequent to consultations with his brother, Gotabhaya, Navy chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and Air Force chief Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody. The President wouldn’t have been able to cope with the situation without the strong backing and commitment of Gotabhaya, who vowed to take up the LTTE’s challenge, and thereby became the next major target. The LTTE made an abortive attempt on Gotabhaya’s life on the morning of Dec 1, 2006.
The failure on the part of the LTTE to accomplish operations targeting General Fonseka, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa and ‘Pearl Cruise II’ at the onset of the offensive contributed to the collapse of its strategy.
A visibly angry Rajapaksa told MP Jayasuriya’s delegation that they should take a common stand against LTTE terrorism. The President warned the UNP not to seek political advantage in the wake of the rapidly deteriorating situation, with jets bombing selected LTTE targets. Kfirs and F7s jets launched from Katunayake zeroed in on Sampur, Illankanthai and Kattaparichchan in the Trincomalee District several hours after the suicide bid. The army fired MBRLs (multi barrel rocket launchers), while naval craft fired from the sea. Attacks continued on the following day, though then Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera reassured the international community of the GoSL’s commitment to the CFA.
The JVP and JHU appreciated military action, though being upset of the GoSL’s re-commitment to the Norwegian initiative. They were of the opinion that there couldn’t be a negotiated settlement to the national problem, as long as the LTTE retained a conventional military capability. Hence, it had to be disarmed at any cost.
About 30 minutes before jets had approached the Trincomalee district, the LTTE used public address systems to warn the public of the impending strikes fuelling speculation that the group may have had infiltrated the defence establishment (LTTE tipped off on attacks –The Island o April 30, 2006).
MP Jayasuriya assured the President that the UNP wouldn’t use the crisis to gain political advantage. The UNP delegation comprised party General Secretary, N. V. K. K. Veragoda and four MPs, Prof. G. L. Peiris, Milinda Moragoda, Tissa Attanayake (Deputy General Secretary) and Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena.
Had the LTTE succeeded in assassinating the Sinha Regiment veteran, Lt. Gen. Fonseka, it would have had a catastrophic impact on the GoSL’s combined security forces strategy. The attack on the thrice wounded army chief sent shock waves through the political and defence establishments. An alleged second attempt to assassinate him at the National Hospital caused uncertainty. A deeply worried army headquarters spokesman, then Brigadier, Prasad Samarasinghe had to deny the alleged second attempt and reassure the country that the army chief was safe. (No fresh attempt on commander-army––The Island of April 27, 2006).
In fact, he was the first service chief hit by a suicide bomber since the assassination of Vice Admiral Clancy Fernando on November 16, 1992 in Colombo. The soft spoken naval veteran earned the wrath of the LTTE for trying to block LTTE supply runs across the Jaffna lagoon during eelam war II. (The issue will be dealt later).
Although the international community, particularly Norway, as well as the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), realised that President Rajapaksa could take a different approach to the LTTE threat, though he reiterated his commitment to the CFA in the aftermath of the assassination bid on Lt. Gen. Fonseka, they never made a genuine effort to rein in the LTTE. Had they brought pressure to bear on the LTTE’s overseas network, the group would have probably returned to the negotiating table. Those demanding accountability on the part of the GoSL over alleged atrocities remained silent as the LTTE stepped-up pressure. The LTTE relentlessly pursued its military objectives, though the government publicly warned that the military would retaliate. The Defence Ministry gave the warning as it authorised an air strike following a Sea Tiger attack on the navy off Palugahathurai on May 5, 2006. The navy called for an SLAF strike on an LTTE heavy vehicle mounted with a long range weapon stationed on the Palugahathurai beach. Mi 24 helicopter gunships swung into action, the first assault carried out by No 09 attack helicopter squadron. The battle involved five navy boats and four Sea Tiger craft. It was the first deployment of SLAF assets since the launch of retaliatory action on April 25 and 26 subsequent to the attempt on L. Gen. Fonseka’s life. (Navy blasts Tiger suicide boat with strap-line Russian built helicopter gunships go into battle –The Island o May 06, 2006).
LTTE attempt to kill
The GoSL’s limited response to its attempt on the life of the Army chief, who is a member of the National Security Council, had obviously compelled the LTTE to rethink its strategy. As the GoSL remained committed to the CFA even after the assassination of Kadirgamar and the attack on the Army chief, the LTTE planned to cause a devastating loss, which no government could ignore. There couldn’t have been a target as attractive as an old ship carrying over 700 men returning to their bases in the Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna islands. Compared to that, Mavil-aru which had been nothing more than the denial of water to farmers could have evoked emotions as rapidly as a ship going down with hundreds of off duty personnel. The government would never have survived such a debacle. The loss of over 700 lives would have turned the entire county against the government, demoralised the armed forces and thereby deprived the military of fresh recruits. It would be pertinent to discuss the circumstances under which the LTTE threw a strong Sea Tiger contingent, spearheaded by suicide cadres to target ‘Pearl Cruiser II’ and its escort vessels, in spite of the presence of SLMM naval monitors. The Sea Tiger operation launched on the evening of May 11, 2006 off Mullaitivu was undoubtedly the biggest since the signing of the CFA in Feb 2002. The Sea Tiger operation got underway soon after the Japanese peace envoy, Yasushi Akashi visited Kilinochchi. Ms Helen Olafsdottir of the SLMM said that the LTTE had ignored their call for an immediate suspension of the operation. Olafsdottir said that the LTTE had wanted the SLMM to get its naval monitors out of navy vessels, when the LTTE was reminded of the presence of Scandinavian truce monitors on board the targeted vessels. (Terrorists target ship carrying 700 troops––The Island of May 12, 2006 ).
Although the navy fought back, an enemy force comprising about 20 craft, including four explosive-laden suicide craft, one Fast Attack Craft (FACs) P 418 (which was part of the squadron delayed to protect the ship) commanded by Lt. Commander, E.L.P. Edirisinghe was hit. The entire crew, comprising two officers and 15 men and an army radio operator perished. The government alleged that the LTTE had timed the attack for the eve of Vesak to provoke a backlash, which could have led to a situation similar to that of July 1983 (LTTE wanted a backlash on Vesak-govt––The Island of May 13, 2006). On board the navy convoy were Ilkka Happlina, the head of the Trincomalee-based naval monitors and Lars Bleymann, the deputy head of the Jaffna-based naval monitors. The SLMM claimed that the suspension would be temporary. (SLMM suspends naval monitoring––The Island of May 14, 2006).
Happlina had been on the troop carrier targeted by the Sea Tigers and was able to relate the unprovoked attack and the navy’s response. The ship and P 421 were flying the SLMM flag. Bleymann, who had been on board P 421, damaged in the confrontation, paid a glowing tribute to the navy crew for saving his life. He commended the Commanding Officer of the vessel for bravery and leading an effective counter attack in spite of being far outnumbered by the Sea Tigers.
Soon after the LTTE engaged the navy convoy, the government launched air strikes on identified LTTE targets, including its airfield at Iranamdu, which was under construction at that time.
Only after the incident, did it transpire that the LTTE had warned the SLMM on the occasions not to board navy vessels or face the consequences. The last warning was given on May 11, 2006, the day the LTTE engaged the convoy 30 nautical miles off Vettilaikerni coast. Although the SLMM had received two previous letters on April 18 and May 10, the Scandinavians never alerted the navy. Instead, they continued naval monitoring as if they had not received warnings from the LTTE. (Monitors in a fix over Tiger warning––The Island of May 13, 2006).
SLMM suspends naval monitoring
The SLMM suspended naval monitoring, though it was an integral part of the truce monitoring process. Foreign governments engaged in the peace process still refused to twist Prabhakaran’s arm.
The Vettilaikerni battle exposed difficulties faced by the armed forces. The navy felt that it could have thwarted the Sea Tiger attack off Vettilaikerni if FACs had been equipped with better weapons. Although the navy had envisaged replacing 23 mm cannon with 30 mm guns, its plan was not carried out. The navy had been pushing for finalisation of the project since 2003 as it felt about the 30 FACs needed to be mounted with 30 mm weapon. The SLAF, too, had its share of problems with all MiG 27s grounded for want of servicing. (Forces must prepare for any eventuality: military––The Island of May 14, 2006).
The government realised that the LTTE was not returning to the negotiating table and an all-out war was inevitable. It was forced to rethink its strategy. The next round of fighting was going to decide the fate of the nation. The government intensified preparations to face any eventuality, though it still reiterated readiness to meet the LTTE even at overseas venues in a bid to avoid war. Confident that the GoSL forces could be overwhelmed, the LTTE went ahead with its own strategy to justify its terror campaign. The LTTE called a four-hour protest at Trafalgar Square on May 21, 2006 to pressure the GoSL and also to hoodwink the international community(Under fire, Tigers plan protest in London––The Island of May 17, 2006).
After being silent for some time, Maj. Gen. Ulf Henricsson admitted that there was ‘low intensity war.’ "We don’t have a peace agreement, we have a ceasefire agreement. So here is a war ongoing. It is a low intensity war," NEWS r.scotsman.com quoted retired Swedish Maj Gen Henricsson as having said on May 14, 2006, four days after the abortive bid to kill over 700 unarmed service personnel.
The civilian crew of ‘Pearl Cruise II’ abandoned the ship after they brought it to back from Kankesanthurai to Trincomalee.