If Sri Lankan security forces did not defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels in nearly 20 years of fighting, they
learnt many lessons from the separatist war. One was to maintain a high level of alert in the first week of
July no matter which part of the country they served.
On July 5, 1987, the first rebel suicide bomber, 'Captain Millar' rammed an explosives-laden truck into Nelliady Central College in the Jaffna peninsula. It killed 30 soldiers billeted there.
That attack was intended to foil troops attempting to seize the northern capital during 'Operation Liberation' - an offensive that was a precursor to the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka.
For 17 years now, the rebels have marked July 5, as 'Black Tiger Day.' Over the years, the weeks beginning July 5 have seen deadly suicide bomb attacks and gory deaths.
The past two years, however, had remained an exception, thanks to the Ceasefire Agreement of February 22, 2002. The previous United National Front (UNF) government that signed the agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) went out of office at the parliamentary elections on April 2.
The task of talking peace fell on President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. But her minority United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government, barely four months in office, appears to be on a head-on collision course with the Tamil Tiger rebels.
On Wednesday, July 7, a female suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to her body inside the Kollupitiya police Station. The building adjoins 'Temple Trees,' the official residence of the Prime Minister. The area is a 'high security zone', with the diplomatic missions of United States, Britain and India close by.
In the wake of mounting concerns worldwide over the incident, Tamil Tiger rebels denied involvement and declared, "We strongly condemn the attack." This unusual statement after a suicide bomber attack came in the LTTE's official 'Peace Secretariat' website. It was the work of armed groups operating with Sri Lankan military units, said the denial.
That tacitly pointed the finger at the renegade eastern leader Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias 'Colonel' Karuna, The one-time close confidante of the rebel leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and his cadres have been wreaking havoc in the eastern Batticaloa district. Cadres loyal to Prabhakaran have been killed, his military camps and political offices bombed.
Only after posting the denial did the rebel leaders realize the damage it would cause. Spokesman Daya Master telephoned the Tamil media, particularly those in the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula, not to print the official account. Suicide attacks by any other group would be giving them credit for having cadres who were willing to make the supreme sacrifice and achieve 'martyrdom' - a virtue that was exclusive to the LTTE.
But CID detectives questioned the suicide bomber's accomplice and uncovered proof the attack was in fact carried out by the LTTE rebels. The target was Tamil Cabinet Minister Douglas Devananda, whose Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) is a constituent partner of the UPFA. Unlike the proverbial cat that had nine lives, Devananda has had one more: he survived his tenth assassination attempt.
Devananda has been publicly canvassing for renegade leader Karuna, who has received the 'protective custody' of the Army, to form a separate Tamil political party in the East. For the LTTE, which now claims it is the sole representative of Tamils, this is anathema.
For Prabhakaran and his senior leaders in Kilinochchi, the Karuna issue has taken centre stage over the peace talks. The anger is almost entirely over attacks on their cadres in the eastern Batticaloa district, rather than over Karuna being given 'protective custody. ' They have so far not raised the issue of Karuna being turned over to face their 'justice', nor, consequently, has such an eventuality warranted any official reaction from the government.
However, the rebels have repeatedly alleged that the security forces have colluded with the Karuna group in carrying out attacks, with the knowledge of the government. President Kumaratunga has repeatedly denied these allegations. It is becoming increasingly clear the rebel leadership is not convinced by her assertions.
And developments this week seem to be a clear turning point. On July 5, a rebel political wing leader and a colleague attending a 'Black Tiger Day' commemoration meeting in government-controlled Batticaloa town were shot and wounded. On the same day, another guerrilla who was shot at died, while his colleague was injured, in the same district.
But a more disturbing development that was to anger the rebel leadership took place on the evening of July 5 in the northeastern military garrison town of Hingurakgoda. Fourteen members of the Karuna faction were arrested from a Buddhist Temple. An arms cache was also recovered.
police produced them before a Magistrate and obtained bail for them. Possession of weapons is a non-bailable offence under Sri Lanka's firearm laws. But the police said the weapons were found in 'a different part' of the temple.
But the government faced further embarrassment after a news report posted on the Sri Lankan Army's official website claimed that the police had arrested the Tamil youth with weapons.
The head of the LTTE Political Division, K. Kousaylyan declared "Now it is very obvious that the Sri Lankan authorities are conniving with their military intelligence and police to gather, arm and send stragglers of the Karuna group to murder innocents and sabotage the peace. What happened today is a travesty of justice."
He complained that an LTTE cadre who was arrested by the police with a box of cartridges in Batticaloa was still in custody, as the Courts had refused him bail.
Unidentified men later hurled a grenade at the Buddhist temple, badly wounding the high priest. He was airlifted to Colombo for treatment but died.
Quite clearly the rebels are angry. Early this week, they shot dead two Karuna loyalists and displayed their bodies in the farming town of Illupadichchenai in Batticaloa District. That was to warn the public not to encourage the renegade faction. On the basis of information extracted from the duo before they were executed, a village leader was later shot dead.
In a week where tensions have peaked between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels, Norway's Special Envoy, Erik Solheim, met LTTE Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham, for talks. The latter has now made it clear that talks would hinge on the government heeding a provision of the Ceasefire Agreement that calls for Tamil paramilitary groups to be disarmed.
In April this year, when President Kumaratunga's UPFA government invited Norway to resume peace efforts, it publicly declared that the rebels had agreed to talk without any preconditions. It later turned out that the rebels were seeking an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA), which the government believes is a blueprint for a separate state.
This demand was over shadowed when the rebels said the Karuna issue should be settled first, and that the government should halt the violence. They have now reiterated the demand that paramilitary groups be disarmed.
Now that the Tiger rebels have launched what appears to be a 'limited offensive,' casting aside President Kumaratunga's assurances, the future of the peace process is very much in the balance.
Iqbal Athas is Consultant Editor and Defence Correspondent, The Sunday Times, Colombo. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal