The four year old ceasefire in Sri Lanka is tottering at the
brink of collapse as the special Norwegian Peace Envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer tries
to convince both parties to pull back from mutual hard-line stances and return
The week of July 31- August 6, 2006, saw the worst few days of violence with government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) engaged in full-blown confrontations south of the eastern Trincomalee harbour. The trouble commenced on July 20 when civilians living in the government controlled Kallar area complained that water had been cut off from an irrigation canal that flows through territory controlled by the Tigers.
The government accused the Tigers of deliberately closing down the sluice gates at Mawilaru, denying water to 15,000 families and 30,000 acres of paddy land. The two sides exchanged at least two letters on sorting out the water mess, but eight days after the closure, government troops moved into the area to wrest control of the sluice. Before the operation was launched, hardliners in Colombo, including Buddhist monks, tried to march to the sluice gates. They were prevented by troops commanded by Maj. Gen. Nanda Mallwarachchi, who assured them that water would be provided soon, and then came the military operation.
The operation to reach the sluice, however, has proved much more arduous than first anticipated. Though the distance to the gates from the last government controlled point is about 5 kilometres, a week after the operation commenced the canal still remained dry and bloody fighting continues.
Military sources said that the Tigers had put up stiff resistance and the open terrain itself made progress difficult. The advancing troops were provided with air cover and artillery fire as well and the latest reports said that two tanks had been moved into the theatre. In fact the Sri Lankan Air Force bombed targets in Tiger areas in the northern and eastern parts of the island, including a political office and a suspected airstrip in an apparent attempt to put pressure on the Tigers.
The latter, on their part, opened up several other fronts. On August 1, 2006, 18 soldiers were killed when the bus they were traveling in was caught in a Claymore mine attack on the access road to the Kallar canal. They were on their way to bolster troop strength.
The same afternoon, a troop transporter with 800 soldiers on board was attacked by a flotilla of Tiger suicide boats numbering into the 20s as it was approaching the Trincomalee harbour. The troop carrier Jet Liner however escaped the attack and reached the harbour safely. Naval crafts providing security for the carrier sunk three Tiger boats and damaged another two. Thereafter, the Tigers shelled the naval base close by from their positions south of the Trincomalee bay. Several 122 mm artillery shells fell on the camp and four naval ratings were killed when the bus they were in caught fire. The exchange of fire lasted for more than three hours.
In the early morning of August 2, 2006, the Army reported that its camps in Kattaparichchan, Selvanagar and Mahindapura had come under attack. The camps lie at the border of Army controlled areas south of the Trincomalee harbour. The Tigers claimed that they were in control of the camps. Later on it transpired that the camps were intact, but that the Tigers had infiltrated the area and were carrying out attacks.
Several hours after the assault on the camps, the coastal town of Muttur came under Tiger attack. Once again, both sides claimed that they were in command. The Tigers had been able to infiltrate into the town and occupied some government buildings for some time. The government launched a full blooded assault to reclaim total control and artillery and multi-barrel launchers opened up from the northern side of the harbour. A main Tiger base in Sampur at the southern part of the bay and other areas further east were targeted by a barrage of shelling that continued for three days..
While the two sides fought for the control of the town, civilians fled in hordes. At least 10,000 have been made refugees by the fighting and aid agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that hundreds had been stranded on the roads leading from Muttur and were running low on food and water. At least several hundred were trapped in the town itself. Fifteen died when a shell landed in a school that they had sought shelter in and another 20 were killed due to shell fire while fleeing the town according to ICRC. The entire 24 kilometre stretch of road from Mahindapura to Muttur has suffered damage due to shelling..
By August 4, when the fighting was at its worst, all aid agencies, including the ICRC, pulled out due to security concerns. Even the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was unable to get in. Its head, Ulf Henricsson, had to turn back the next day as well, when he was warned that the road was full of explosives and there was still the threat of shells. By this time the Army was claiming that it was in control of the town and had killed more than 200 LTTE cadres. The Tigers also claimed that they had killed more than 100 government troops. Independent verification of the figures was impossible due to lack of access.
The Tiger leadership in Trincomalee announced that it had withdrawn from Muttur voluntarily by August 4 midnight after ‘achieving their objective’ of destroying selected military targets in the town. The LTTE political head, S. Ellilan, asserted that they had also taken into consideration the humanitarian plight of the people as well.
While the fighting was raging on, Henricsson had stated that the ceasefire had in effect been rendered null and void in the areas of immediate conflict. The LTTE had also given an assurance to the Norwegians that the sluice gates would be opened on August 6, but when the SLMM went to monitor the opening of the gates, the area had come under mortar fire from the Army, and there is a continuing delay on this.
That, however, is not the sum of the SLMM’s problems. Hanssen-Bauer is in Kilinochchi to persuade the LTTE to drop a demand that all European Union (EU) nationals serving as monitors should be pulled out by end August. The LTTE’s demand came in retaliation to the EU decision to impose a ban on them as a terrorist organisation. Already, the three EU nations in the SLMM, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, have declared that they would be pulling out monitors by month’s end, unless the LTTE changes its stance. This would deplete the monitoring staff to 20 from it current 57. Henricsson warned that changes in the monitoring mechanism could not be carried out by the August-end deadline, and unless the Tigers scale down their demand, the SLMM would be made dysfunctional. He also stated that no countries were lining up to take up monitoring duties in Sri Lanka.
Hanssen Bauer is expected to spend two days in the LTTE political nerve centre Kilinochchi on August 7-8, 2006, in his attempt to convince the Tigers. Sources indicate that he would impress on the LTTE that a hard-line stance would risk further intentional isolation. In fact, the Japanese have also hinted on a ban if the present status quo continues.
However, there is little optimism regarding the success of these moves, and Norwegian Embassy officials at Colombo warned against expecting any miracles as Hanssen Bauer prepared to leave for Tiger areas .
The peace process notwithstanding, war has returned to Sri Lanka.
Amantha Perera Lecturer, Sri Lanka College of Journalism, Colombo. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.