ON a normal Wednesday morning the Colombo Fort, Sri Lanka's commercial capital, would have just begun to come to life. But since October 14 was a public holiday, it was almost deserted. Around 7 am, as a truck packed with explosives pulled into the entrance of a car park at the five-star Galadari hotel in the heart of Fort, this sense of calm was shattered. A group of fully armed cadre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ( LTTE) got off the truck, shot dead the two unarmed security guards manning the entrance barrier and drove the truck near the wall separating the hotel from the World Trade Centre, the twin-towered 36-storey office and shopping complex which is the island's tallest building. Some of the armed cadre began to fire their automatic rifles into the air and others who had taken position further away from the hotel did the same. At 7.10 am, a huge blast rocked the capital as the truck exploded.
Ian Clyne, an Australian businessman, was about to get into the shower in the neighbouring Hilton hotel when he heard gunfire. "I looked out of the window and saw three or four people firing into the air. As I came away from the window, a massive explosion rocked the hotel and I was thrown onto the bed," recalls Clyne who escaped without injury.
The explosion, which left a 20-ft wide and 10-ft deep crater and caused extensive damage to the World Trade Centre, the Galadari hotel and the Hilton hotel, left 18 dead and 104 injured. For the first time since the Tamil separatist war began 14 years ago, the LTTE took no precautions to avoid harming foreigners. The explosion left 32 foreigners injured. The bomb was clearly aimed at the World Trade Centre, the Singaporean-owned showpiece of the business district. It housed both the Stock Exchange and offices of the Central Bank. It had been inaugurated ceremonially by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga only three days before the attack.
After the bomb explosion three of the 10 rebels who took part in the operation holed up in the office of a government-run newspaper group nearby. After exchanging intermittent gunfire with the rebels, the army sent in commandos to flush them out. One rebel was shot dead and the other two blew themselves up. (Two other rebels were shot just outside the hotel.) The LTTE carried out the bomb attack just a week after the US administration named it a terrorist organisation, the first country in the world to do so. The Sri Lankan government has been touting it as a major diplomatic victory and the first step in undermining the support of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the western world which provides it with crucial financial support.
THE Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry was quick to exploit the latest strike."In carrying out this attack on this particular area, the LTTE was fully aware that it would greatly affect foreign nationals. By this action the LTTE has given notice to the world that it no longer cares about international opinion and has effectively challenged the international community," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ravinatha Ariyasingha.
In a clear signal to the US that it would not cow down to international pressure, the LTTE's attack was carried out despite, maybe because of, a team of trainers from the US military staying in the hotel. None of the US military personnel was injured in the attack. The US reversed its policy of not providing military aid of any kind to the Sri Lankan forces following the breakdown of peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE in June 1994. Since then it has provided specialised training by sending the naval commandos—the SEALS—and the Army Green Berets to train their counterparts in Sri Lanka. The Americans are also providing training for Sri Lankan air force pilots and intelligence agents.
Meanwhile, in London, the LTTE office was quick to issue a routine denial saying that the organisation had nothing to gain by such an attack. However, the attack has all the hallmarks of the LTTE.
This was the first major attack on the capital by the LTTE since a bomb attack destroyed the Central Bank building 20 months ago and came amidst a crucial military offensive in the northern Wanni mainland. Operation Jayasikuru (Certain Victory), launched five months ago, is already the longest and bloodiest military campaign in the separatist war. The operation, aimed at opening a land route to the northern Jaffna peninsula, which is now being supplied by sea and air, has left 800 government soldiers dead and over 3,000 injured. The military says it has killed over 1,500 rebels and many more have been injured. The army's plan was to complete the operation within three months and restrict the LTTE to the Mullaitivu jungles in the northeastern mainland.
But the LTTE used heavy artillery and mortar captured from the army to repeatedly stall the military offensive.In the last five months the LTTE has not only managed to resist the army advance but has also launched three massive counter-attacks, killing close to 400 soldiers and capturing a large quantity of arms and ammunition. Despite these setbacks, the army is still confident that it can complete the operation before the end of the year.
Military analysts say the army underestimated both the LTTE's strength and its tactics. Says the Sunday Times military correspondent Iqbal Aththas: "The timeframe of this operation was supposed to be three months, but it is already five months since it began, and the military has still not been able to capture the strategic town of Puliyankulam. All along, one of the weaknesses has been that the politico-military establishment of this country has continued to underestimate the enemy. Every time a debacle of this kind occurs, it is apparent that the LTTE has not lost its guerrilla clout. In other words, it has not lost its capacity to conduct a guerrilla war."
The Kumaratunga government is counting heavily on the success of this military offensive to push through a new constitution, which includes extensive devolution of powers to the regions to satisfy longstanding demands of the minority Tamils. The president and her deputy minister for defence have been saying that this military campaign would by and large fin-ish off the LTTE as a military force.
The government believes that by crippling the LTTE's military capability and by garnering the support of mainstream Tamil political parties and civilians, it can force the LTTE to enter into a negotiated settlement. In fact, the president remained resolute after the bomb attack. "The inhuman terrorists have carried out such cowardly attacks before. I would say with confidence that such cowardly acts will not undermine our commitment to peace," she said after the attack.
But analysts say the LTTE is sending a clear signal to the government that there can be no peace without it. "Everything that the government is doing as far as resolving the conflict is concerned is to defeat or isolate the LTTE. This act shows that this is not possible. This is the LTTE's way of reinforcing the point that this conflict can only be ended through a settlement with them," points out Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
The government is expected to table its devolution proposals and the rest of the constitutional proposals in Parliament later this month in the form of a sessional paper. It has already launched a nationwide propaganda campaign and was expected to push for its implementation early next year, despite the LTTE's rejection of the proposals and significant opposition from some segments of the majority Sinhalese community. But after the crippling bomb attack, these efforts are likely to suffer a definite setback.