On September 8, 2006, a Sri Lankan military contingent escorted a group of national and international journalists through the northeastern town of Sampur, guiding them right through to the coast, demonstrating their absolute control over an area, till recently considered a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) stronghold. This exercise marked the culmination of a series of fierce battles between troops and the LTTE cadres over different pockets in the northern and eastern part of the country. Sampur was one of these pockets of intense conflict, and also the most crucial .
Although, the island nation has been witnessing a sharp slide into protracted violence since last year, 2006 is already the bloodiest year since the now ‘defunct’ Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was signed in February 2002. Till September 6, based on media reports, 672 civilians, 392 security forces (SFs) and 1,426 LTTE cadres have been killed in different incidents across the country. This figure is appreciably higher as compared to 2005, which saw the death of 153 civilians, 90 SFs and 87 LTTE cadres.
Although, the LTTE campaign of claymore mine explosions and suicide attacks targeting security forces increased dramatically in this period, matters came to a boil with the Mawilaru anicut (irrigation channel) dispute. The dispute commenced on July 20, 2006, 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 LTTE of deliberately closing down the sluice gates at Mawilaru, denying water to 15,000 families and 30,000 acres of paddy land in the Seruwila, Muttur and Ichchalampattu areas of the Trincomalee District. ‘Operation Watershed’, launched by the government on July 26 to open the sluice gates, met with considerable resistance from the LTTE. Although ground troops, with support from airforce jets, managed to open the sluice gates on August 8, the LTTE opened up fronts in other areas.
On August 1, 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. On the same day, at least five Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) personnel were killed and 30 others sustained injuries when LTTE cadres fired artillery at the Trincomalee naval base. Further, the SLN reportedly repulsed a LTTE attempt to destroy a troop carrier transporting 854 unarmed military personnel when it was returning from Kankesanthurai harbour and entering the mouth of Trincomalee harbour.
Simultaneously, on August 1, the LTTE launched attacks on three Sri Lankan Army (SLA) camps and the Muslim-majority Muttur town, killing at least five military personnel and one civilian, while injuring more than 30 others. Military sources said LTTE cadres attacked with mortars and artillery at Army camps in Kattaparichchan, Gandhinagar, and Palathoppur and the Muttur town. The LTTE claimed that Gandhinagar and Palathoppur localities were captured, and four detachments of the Army at Kattaparichchan, Palathoppur, Pachchanoor and Mahindapura were overrun. LTTE units then entered Muttur town and reached the jetty linking Muttur with Trincomalee town across the Koddiyar Bay. Following the clashes that occurred in the Muttur town and its vicinity, close to 40,000 residents were displaced. On August 5, the Army claimed that the LTTE beat a hasty retreat in the face of an intense military operation. SLA sources claimed that, in the course of the operation, 152 cadres of the LTTE were killed. However, the LTTE asserted that the withdrawal of its cadres from the strategic town came after they had accomplished ‘military objectives’, which were never specified.
On August 11, the LTTE opened another front in the northern Jaffna District, attempting to overrun the Army's Forward Defense Line (FDL). According to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission’s (SLMM) Weekly Report, 7-13 August 2006,
…the situation in Sri Lanka further worsened with large scale military confrontations spreading to Jaffna peninsula on 11th August. LTTE advanced over the Forward Defense Line near Muhamalai Entry/Exit Point and cadres landed on several beaches in the South and on Kayts and Mandaitivu Islands outside Jaffna town. LTTE claimed that they were just responding to SLA artillery attacks, but considering the preparation level of the operations it seems to have been a well prepared LTTE initiative. SLA managed to stop LTTE advancing the next day and attacked LTTE areas with artillery and air strikes.
Even as the armed forces managed to wrest the initiative in the Mavilaru dispute, in Muttur town and in Jaffna, the Trincomalee harbour continued to be vulnerable under constant shelling by LTTE artillery and mortar shells from the Sampur area. Some of the major incidents of shelling included:
August 1: At least five SLN personnel were killed and 30 others sustained injuries when LTTE cadres fired artillery from the Sampur area at the Trincomalee naval base
August 12: LTTE cadres open artillery fire from the Sampur area on the naval base in Trincomalee District, killing one civilian and a sailor.
August 28: At least 31 persons were killed and 105 were wounded, when troops backed by multi-barrel rocket launchers and artillery guns, retaliated after an LTTE attack at Sampur.
Sampur has been a crucial town for both the government and the LTTE, for it lies on the southern side of Trincomalee Bay, directly opposite the major Trincomalee Port and Naval Base, providing the LTTE the opportunity to set up artillery formations and bomb the area at will. Strategic analyst Amantha Perera notes,
The area was under government troops till about 1997. According to sources from within the Sri Lankan Army, troops had to be pulled out and the camps abandoned in 1997, when the Army launched Operation Jayasikuru (Victory Assured) to capture the main A9 highway that connects the Jaffna Peninsula to the rest of the country. The sources put Sampur, Gangai, Kadalkadu, Koonativu and Illankantai among the camps that were abandoned. It was with the Army pull-out that the LTTE moved into the area and set up bases.
June 2003, the Sri Lankan Army lodged a complaint with the SLMM accusing the Tigers of setting up a new camp at Manirasakulam on the south western side of the Bay. The SLMM inquiry ruled that the camp was within 600 meters of
government-controlled areas and should be dismantled. The LTTE ignored the ruling.
Further, the Sri Lankan government, on August 9, 2004, officially complained to the SLMM that 13 camps of the LTTE, located along the southern mouth of the harbour, had been newly set up, violating the bilateral ceasefire agreement.
Over time, Sampur had even acquired the position of a key LTTE base, operating as the Eastern Province headquarters. All institutions such as their administrative offices, courts, Eastern Province police headquarters were located there. The emergence of Sampur as a key LTTE stronghold created a threat to the security of the Trincomalee Naval base and the adjacent Air Force base that provides critical support to the military operations in the Northern theatre. A report compiled by the US Pacific Command on the vulnerabilities of the Trincomalee Naval base clearly points out that the presence of LTTE long range weapons at Sampur was a definite threat to the safety and security of the military installations at Trincomalee.
The Trincomalee Harbour is also of critical importance to the national economy. Forty percent of the oil filling stations in Sri Lanka are operated by the Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC) and the fuel supplies of the LIOC are stored at the Oil Tank Farm at China Bay near the Trincomalee Harbour.
Further, Sri Lanka’s total wheat flour requirements are supplied by the Prima Flour Milling factory in Trincomalee. The silos and buildings of the Prima factory on the bay of the Trincomalee harbour are viable targets for LTTE long-range weaponry. International shipping lines transporting wheat flour have, in the past, voiced reservations due to the threat on Trincomalee Harbour. In addition, the Harbour also has several other industrial facilities such as the cement processing plant of the Tokyo Cement Company.
Regaining Sampur was, consequently, a rising imperative as hostilities recommenced, and the battle to regain the strategic town was launched by the military on August 28, with ground troops painstakingly de-mining the region, under Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) air cover. By September 3, troops had managed to regain some parts of Sampur region, even as, by then, the LTTE had reportedly removed its artillery from Sampur to safer places in the Vaharai-Verugal area of Batticaloa district. Thereafter, on September 4, LTTE military spokesman Rasiah Ilantheriyan announced that their troops were "tactically withdrawing" from the Sampur town.
For the military, one of the crucial elements in the success stories of the battles has been the effective operational use of SLAF fighter aircrafts. According to security analysts, the SLAF was, in the past, not a willing player in the conflict, primarily due to losses suffered under LTTE missile fire. On April 28, 1995, the LTTE had used a missile to bring down an Avro at the Palaly Airbase in Jaffna, killing 50 officers and men during Eelam War III. In August the same year, an AN-32 transport aircraft was shot down, again by a missile.
The LTTE, over the years, has been constantly upgrading its weaponry with a focused approach to thwart any future SLAF involvement. Part of the plan was the reported development of an airstrip at Iranamadu and attempts to assemble twin engine propeller driven aircraft. The LTTE is also in possession of SA7 surface-to-air missiles, which were used to down the SLAF transport planes earlier. However, the SA7 missiles are considered to have a shorter shelf life and limited speed, range and altitude, rendering them ineffective against fast moving fighter aircraft. The result was the enormously effective use of fighter jets by Colombo, as a few examples demonstrate:
July 27: SLAF fighter craft struck selected LTTE targets in the east of Mullaittivu District, where the LTTE was reportedly constructing an illegal airstrip, killing six cadres and injuring five civilians.
July 29: Eight LTTE cadres were killed and 12 others sustained injuries in an air strike by the SLAF at the outfit’s Thenaham Conference Centre in the Karadiyanaru area of Batticaloa District.
July 31: SLAF jets destroy a Sea-Tiger base in the Vakarai area of Batticaloa district, killing at least 30 LTTE cadres.
August 1: In SLAF air strikes at the Mavilaru, Verugalaru and Kathirveli, the government claimed to have killed 50 LTTE cadres.
An LTTE attempt at acquiring a better version of the SA7 missiles was thwarted on August 19, 2006, when thirteen suspects with close links to the rebels were arrested in Long Island, New York, after three of them traveled from Canada to New York in an attempt to finalize a $900,000 deal to buy SA18 surface-to-air missiles, missile launchers, AK-47s and training services from what turned out to be an undercover police official. Reports indicate that the undercover agent allegedly discussed selling weapons with one of the suspects to shoot down the Kfir Israeli-made jets used by the SLAF.
Although, the military celebrates the capture of Sampur, this is far from the end of the present round of conflict. Following the Sampur loss, LTTE political head, S.P. Tamilselvan stated, "One of the basic requirements of the CFA is to respect the existing borders of control. The Sampur occupation clearly violates this and therefore by this occupation GoSL has brought an end to the CFA. This is how LTTE views the occupation." Further, he warned that the Sinhala population will soon have to face the "consequences" of the ongoing clashes: "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 LTTE might have suffered a setback or, in its own language, have ‘tactically withdrawn’ from some areas, but its lethality cannot be ignored as history has proven time and again. The outfit continues to have the wherewithal to hit back strongly, as clearly witnessed in the September 10 attack by LTTE cadres on SF positions in the Muhamalai area of the Jaffna peninsula, leaving 28 soldiers dead. More crucially, the Tigers have the capacity to carry out operations even at the country’s heart, Colombo.
Saji Cherian is Research Associate and Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Assistant,
at the Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the
South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.