On January 19, 2007, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) captured Vakarai town in Batticaloa district from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It was the largest LTTE stronghold in the East and functioned as a crucial base for the outfit, linking the North with the East. Vakarai is a strategically significant coastal strip providing sea bases to the LTTE. By controlling this area, the LTTE had, thus far, secured a free run in the smuggling of arms and narcotics into Sri Lanka and the neighbouring East Asian countries.
Advancing SLA troops reportedly reached Kadiraveli town, 11-km North of Vakarai, overcoming stiff resistance from LTTE cadres and also captured the rebel’s Kottalamadu base. As in the case of Sampur in 2006, initially the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) launched aerial attacks on the LTTE strongholds in the region. On November 6, 2006, Israeli-built SLAF Kfir jets completely destroyed a LTTE Sea-Tiger base at Palachchenai in the North of Vakarai. On January 17, 2007, SLAF Kfir jets struck LTTE posts at Vakarai inflicting heavy casualties. The Special Task Force (STF), in the meanwhile, had launched a campaign on January 4, 2007, called Niyathai Jaya (Sure Victory), aimed at clearing LTTE bases in Ampara, indicating a clear multi-pronged attack by the troops. On January 11, the STF captured the outfit’s Janak camp and six other camps at Kanchjudichcharu in the Ampara district. A day earlier, STF had captured the Stanley Base, the largest LTTE camp in Ampara. The capture of Stanley and Janak camps was a strategic victory that eliminated the LTTE threat posed to security forces camps in the East. Further, the STF also took control of a LTTE women’s wing camp-- Nalini Base-- in Kanchikudichchiaru on January 16. "There was evidence that Nalini Base was a training and detention camp. It has also been used as a factory turning out weapons and ammunition," a senior military official disclosed, adding that LTTE camps such as Stanley, Paramananda, Bagayadhi, Janak, Jeevan, Diana, Shashi, Eleththiyan, Eleivan, Aridevan, Madurakavi and Raam were captured by the STF during its offensive launched on January 4, 2007.
An immediate consequence of this is that the troops now control the A-15 National Highway, which links Batticaloa with the Trincomalee district. The loss of Vakarai will cut off supply routes of the Northern Tigers to their cadres in the East, further weakening the LTTE grip in the East. After the ouster of LTTE from Vakarai, the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse, declared, "It is because of their (the SLA’s) noble sacrifice that 95 per cent of the civilians in the Eastern Province are now being able to enjoy freedom, democratic rights and to live without fear. Let us ensure that the whole nation will be free from the horrors of terrorism so that their sacrifice will never go in vain."
The capture of Vakarai is the manifestation of what the SLA Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka had vowed on January 2, 2007: that the Army would liberate the Eastern Province from the LTTE's hold and then proceed to liberating the Northern Province. At that time, the Army Commander had claimed that the LTTE would be eradicated from the East within the ensuing two to three months, adding, "After eradicating the Tigers from the East, full strength would be used to rescue the North." Earlier, on December 14, 2006, military spokesperson, Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe, had told Reuters, "We want to get the LTTE out of this area and free the civilians… We will control most of the coastline in the east," referring to a 14-mile (22-km) stretch of coast in the eastern districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa.
Although Defence Affairs spokesperson, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, stated on January 6, 2007, that the government has no intention of launching an offensive to capture areas under LTTE control and that the clashes are merely "retaliatory", in reaction to the outfit’s attacks, with the capture of Sampur and now Vakarai, it is quite evident that the government will go for an all out attack against the weakening LTTE to secure territorial gains. It appears that the Sri Lankan leadership has realised that any solution to the long-standing ethnic conflict can only be achieved from a position of strength in terms of geography, i.e., areas under government control. The recent Maoist ‘triumph’ in neighbouring Nepal is a glaring example for the Rajapakse government of how important territorial control is to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and integrity. Indeed, the retreat of the state in many of the insurgencies in South Asia is largely due to the loss control over significant territories.
The February 2002 cease-fire agreement left large tracts of territory in the North and East under the control of the LTTE. The government retained control of the key towns of Jaffna, Trincomalee and Batticaloa, but most of the interior in the North, including Wanni and extensive rural areas, were designated ‘LTTE areas’, or as the government termed them, "uncleared areas". This had severely curtailed government’s control over the region and emboldened the LTTE to take a hard line in the ‘peace talks’.
Recent events have done much to bolster the government’s perception of its strength, both militarily and politically. Colombo has secured significant advantages on the ground after its successes in Mavilaru, Muttur, Muhamalai, Sampur and Jaffna, and now in Vakarai and Kadiraveli. With the temporary de-merger of the North and East Province, coming into effect from January 1, 2007, the government will try to strengthen its administrative prowess in the Northern Province in order to establish the Northern Provincial Council Secretariat in the North, which will, as of now, officiate from Trincomalee on the same lines as the Eastern Provincial Council Secretariat does in the East.
The government is expected to consolidate its position further by establishing better administrative control over the North and East, having realized, moreover, that international opinion is now largely in its favour. With the European Union ban on LTTE in May 2006 and continuous assurances from countries like the United States, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand on helping in control LTTE’s arms procurement and fund raising, the government can afford to go for an all out offensive.
Critical to Colombo’s current strategy is support from the Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Pullikal (TMVP), the irregular militia of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias ‘Colonel’ Karuna. The military has gained immensely vis-à-vis local intelligence of the breakaway LTTE leader, and the ‘Karuna factor’ has been critical in the East. In 2006, 922 LTTE cadres were killed in the three Eastern districts, including 519 in Trincomalee and 348 in Batticaloa. The Karuna faction, after breaking ranks with the LTTE in April 2004, has also killed several senior LTTE leaders in the East. These included Kaushalyan, the former LTTE eastern political wing leader and the highest-ranking LTTE leader to be killed in the factional violence since the truce, who was shot dead in February 2005. A senior LTTE leader, ‘Major’ Shankar, who was responsible for collecting extortion funds from Tamil civilians in the Batticaloa region, and a top LTTE intelligence agent ‘Dileep’, were also killed by troops during the clash at Wandaramullai in Batticaloa on January 14.
For the first time since the 2002 truce, Sri Lankan troops have initiated an aggressive military strategy to force the LTTE out of areas under its control. The recapture of Sampur, held by the LTTE since 1997, was a crucial preliminary success in this context. Further reverses inflicted on the LTTE at Mavil Aru, Muttur, Muhamalai, and Panichchankerni boosted the military’s morale, as the outfit was clearly pushed onto the defensive. Colonel R. Hariharan had noted that, over the years, LTTE took advantage of its presence in areas like Sampur, Muttur East and Mavil Aru, to interfere with naval operations and dominate the operation of the Trincomalee Harbour. Security
forces evicted the LTTE from these areas and confined it to a small pocket in Vakarai after a series of military operations. The Army’s sustained pressure in Sampur forced the LTTE to regroup in the Vakarai area and by September 3, 2006, the LTTE had reportedly removed its artillery from Sampur to safer places in the Vakarai-Verugal area.
Continuing its strategy of evicting the LTTE from its strongholds, the SLA launched military operations in Vakarai in early November 2006. Clearly anticipating the SLA movement, the LTTE had, from early October 2006, begun disrupting civilian life, primarily by converting the civilian-populated areas into battle zones, or, as one commentator expressed it, the "terrorists forcibly occupied civilian homes and converted these into bunkers." The Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) reported that 45 Army soldiers were killed during the humanitarian missions carried out in the Eastern Province to liberate civilians from the control of the LTTE since October 2006. According to MCNS sources, at least 331 LTTE cadres were killed and a large number wounded during the mission to liberate Vakarai.
Following the Sampur loss, the LTTE political head, S.P. Tamilselvan, had warned that the Sinhala population would soon have to face ‘the consequences’ of the ongoing clashes, adding, "the international community should not behave any differently when, as a consequence of government action on Tamil people, Sinhala people face the same fate in the future." The escalation of LTTE activities after the loss of Sampur is illustrated by the following significant incidents:
October 16, 2006: At least 98 sailors of the Navy were killed and 100 injured as suspected LTTE cadres rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into a naval convoy at Digampatana in the Habarana area of Matale district.
October 18, 2006: Suspected LTTE cadres carried out a suicide mission on the Dakshina Naval Base in Galle. Troops, however, successfully repulsed the attack, killing 15 LTTE cadres, while one sailor also died in the incident. Another 15 sailors and 14 civilians were injured in the confrontation.
November 9, 2006: The SLN personnel foiled a major LTTE attack on the civilian passenger vessel 'Green Ocean I', with 300 Jaffna-bound civilian passengers from Trincomalee, in the sea off Nagarkovil, destroying a flotilla of Sea-Tiger boats, including three suicide boats.
December 1, 2006: A suicide attack by the LTTE targeting the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is also the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at Dharmapala Mawatha in Colombo injured seven Army personnel and seven civilians. Two of the Army personnel subsequently succumbed to their injuries. The suicide bomber rammed his three-wheeler into the convoy of the Defence Secretary, who was en route to the Presidential Palace for an official meeting. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, however, escaped unhurt.
January 5, 2007: At least six passengers were killed and 63 injured in a bomb blast inside a bus bound for Giriulla from Nittambuwa in the Gampaha district.
January 6, 2007: At least 16 persons were killed and 40 others wounded as a second explosion occurred in a bus within a span of less than 24 hours in the Galle district, over 80 kilometres from the national capital, Colombo.
In the aftermath of the Vakarai loss, the LTTE claimed that it had "decided to pull back" from its Pannichchankerni position, which is on the access route to Vakarai. LTTE spokesman, Rasiah Ilantherayan, admitted that Sri Lankan forces had moved into some outfit-held areas in Ampara, stating, "Of course they made advances into our territory in Ampara, but then in Ampara we operate in a guerrilla mode," adding, that they were continually on the move. Earlier, on September 4, 2006, following the Sampur loss, Ilantheriyan had announced that LTTE cadres were "tactically withdrawing" from Sampur town. Sampur still remains with the Army and new territories are gradually falling to the state’s forces.
Nevertheless, while the LTTE may have suffered a setback or, in its own language, may have ‘tactically withdrawn’ from some areas, its abiding lethality cannot be ignored. The outfit continues to have the wherewithal to hit back strongly, as was clearly witnessed in attacks after the military recapture of Sampur. More importantly, the LTTE has the intent and capacity to carry out terrorist attacks even in the capital, Colombo. Defence authorities have reportedly requested the public to be more vigilant about sleeper LTTE cadres living outside the North and East, who are expected to be preparing for major attacks targeting sensitive economic or military centres in the South, especially in the Western Province. A senior defence ministry official stated, on January 1, 2007, that the troops had recovered 60 claymore mines and 132 hand grenades from ‘non-operational areas’ in 2006, indicating that the LTTE was planning to intensify attacks in the South.
Notwithstanding the fact that the LTTE retains the prowess to hit back, it will be immensely difficult for it to ‘reclaim’ territories it has lost over the past six to eight months. That the outfit has weakened considerably is corroborated by the MNCS release of January 4, 2007, which states that the LTTE faces a severe recruitment problem to fill deficit in its fighting cadres which has arisen due to heavy losses sustained in Mavil Aru, Muhamalai, Thoppur, Sampur, Muttur Jetty and Vakarai. The Eastern Province, the former resource pool that helped fill the gaps arising from their dead and wounded, is now almost completely closed. Between December 1, 2005, and December 28, 2006, the LTTE reportedly lost 2,108 cadres and with even larger numbers injured, according to MCNS. The fatalities alone are estimated to be over 25 per cent of the group’s total armed strength.
The LTTE has clearly been substantially impaired by the current military campaigns. What remains to be seen is, on the one hand, the scale and character of its retaliatory actions and, on the other, the persistence of the government’s determination to continue with operations. If there is any temptation to allow operations to flag in the foreseeable future, and to restore the untenable ‘peace process’ of the recent past, this would give the rebels the space they need to recover and regroup, jeopardizing the significant, but still limited, gains secured by the army.
Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management.
Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal