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India, Sri Lanka need to destroy LTTE's air, navy

By B Raman
June 27, 2006 16:00 IST
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Many successful acts of suicide terrorism by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, including the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and Sri Lankan President R Premadasa in May 1993 were made possible by weak physical security and poor access control by the security agencies of the State responsible for their protection.

The assassination by the LTTE of Major General Parami Kulatunge, deputy chief of the army and commander of the security forces headquarters - Wanni at Pannipitiya, 15 kms south-east of Colombo on Monday can also be attributed to poor access control.

Sri Lankan army general assassinated

He was reportedly proceeding to his office in a security convoy when a lone suicide bomber on a motorcycle, apparently coming from behind, caught up with the convoy, drove parallel to it, reached up to his car and dashed against it while detonating the improvised explosive device simultaneously.

Even the LTTE's attempt to kill Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, the commander of the Sri Lankan army in April was attributable to poor access control. A woman suicide bomber penetrated the premises of the complex housing the army headquarters and blew herself up as the general was leaving the office in his car. He was seriously injured, but survived.

While the LTTE, in keeping with its usual practice, has not claimed responsibility for its unsuccessful April attempt and its successful act of June 26, there need not be any doubt that it was responsible for both acts of terrorism. It demonstrates its ability to collect precise intelligence about the movements of its targeted victims and operate undetected even in and around Colombo.

A perusal of the detailed biodata of the killed general as disseminated by a web site considered the mouthpiece of the LTTE indicates the probable reasons why the LTTE targeted him. Among the indicators available in the web site report, one could mention the following:

  • He was an expert in intelligence and special operations.
  • In the past, he had advocated 'extra-judicial measures' against the civilian population and supporters of the Tamil Eelam cause.
  • He was a key figure in promoting cooperation between the army and Tamil groups opposed to the LTTE.
  • He was a hardliner and a close associate of General Fonseka.

Shattered peace in Sri Lanka

The assassination is widely perceived as the LTTE's retaliation for the recent assassination of two top ranking LTTE military commanders, Ramanan of Batticaloa and Mahindi of Mannar, for which the LTTE blamed the Sri Lanka army.

Before his posting to Batticaloa, Ramanan was in the intelligence setup of the LTTE. He had reportedly been entrusted by Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, with the responsibility for neutralising Karuna, who had deserted the LTTE along with some of his followers in March 2004 in protest against Prabhakaran's discriminatory policies towards Tamils in the eastern province.

'Divide in LTTE will weaken it'

The murderous attack on General Kulatunge came shortly after a conciliatory interview given by President Mahinda Rajapakse to the editor of a Tamil daily Uthayan. In the interview Rajapakse expressed his readiness to hold direct talks with the LTTE to find a political solution instead of the Norwegian intermediary, and to stop the activities of the group led by Karuna against the LTTE if the LTTE proved its good faith by refraining from all acts of violence for 15 days, which could strengthen his hand.

Rajapakse was reported to have remarked that he found himself caught between his army and the LTTE, hinting thereby that some of the recent operations of the military, which resulted in civilian casualties, did not have his approval.

Taming the Tamil Tigers

The LTTE apparently did not believe his statement and rejected his offer.

Rajapakse's conciliatory offer came shortly after Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera's visit to New Delhi for talks with Indian leaders. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the conciliatory offer was the outcome of the discussions of his foreign minister in New Delhi.

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The LTTE action in rejecting the conciliatory offer and assassinating the major general need to be strongly condemned by India and other members of the international community. A careful examination of the LTTE's recent actions and statements indicates certain tactical and strategic objectives of the Tigers.

Among the tactical objectives are the neutralisation of the Karuna group, which is coming in the way of the LTTE re-establishing its political primacy in the eastern province; the continuation of Norway as the facilitator of the peace process; and the re-organisation of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission in order to exclude the three European Uion members in the mission.

The LTTE regards the role of the EU members as having become untenable because of their going along with the EU's recent decision to include the LTTE in the Union's list of terrorist organisations.

The LTTE's evident strategic objectives are to seek an ultimate solution to the Tamil problem, which would concede something more than a conventional federal solution by letting the LTTE retain its armed forces and intelligence set-up in any political solution without merging them with those of the federal government.

In the interregnum, before a political solution is reached, to seek the legitimisation of what it asserts as its control over the territorial waters off the northern and eastern provinces and to have the Sri Lanka navy excluded from there.

The LTTE looks upon itself not just as a conventional non-State actor, but as a non-State actor which already has established many attributes of a State such as an army, a police, a judiciary and a tax-collection machinery to enforce its control over the land occupied by it. There is a navy to enforce its control over its territorial waters and an air force to enforce its control over its air space. Whether the LTTE has really an air force or not is still a matter of speculation, but its army and navy are ground realities.

The war in Lanka

Till the time of writing of this article (8 am on June 27), Rajpakse had not ordered any retaliatory attacks against the LTTE similar to the air strikes on LTTE-controlled territory, which he had ordered after the April attempt to kill the army commander.

Retaliatory attacks by the government would be justified under the doctrine of active defence but could be counter-productive unless the government is able to strengthen its physical security in such a manner as to be able to deny spectacular successes to the LTTE if it retaliates again.

For the present, the LTTE seems content to continue with its present policy of retaining the cease-fire and the role of Norway as facilitator on paper, while maintaining its acts of terrorism against selected targets and the operations of its navy.

There are no indictors as yet of the likelihood of large-scale ground operations by the LTTE army despite the recent (June 4) intimidatory statements of Soosai, chief of the LTTE's navy, where he had spoken of the possibility of a coordinated offensive in many areas simultaneously and of its capability to strike at the Sri Lanka navy even in the waters off southern Sri Lanka.

He was reported to have said: 'It will be a blitzkrieg, a sudden and swift simultaneous attack to redeem our entire Tamil homeland in the north and east. We would not adopt the earlier method of fighting to redeem it inch by inch.'

India's Lanka dilemma

The present ground reality of no victories on the ground and no progress towards the table works to the detriment of the Sri Lankan government. Even while continuing with its attempts to persuade the LTTE to return to the table, the government has to, through appropriate proactive measures, prevent the ground from giving way under its feet.

The LTTE is hoping for a battle fatigue among the Sri Lankan armed forces even before a fresh battle is fought. The government should not allow this to happen.

During his visit to New Delhi, the Sri Lankan foreign minister was reported to have stated that the recent air strikes of the government were directed at destroying the LTTE's air capability such as the airstrip reportedly constructed by it. Its planes and helicopter gunships were also recently reported to have acted against the LTTE's navy off the Mannar coast. These are good, well-calibrated actions. Actions like these could be continued despite the warnings of the LTTE to hit back if there are fresh air strikes.

The most important thing is for the government to keep a tight control over its armed forces to prevent disproportionate use of force and targeting of civilians.

It is in the common interest of India and Sri Lanka to weaken and ultimately destroy the LTTE's maritime and air capabilities. The maritime capability includes its navy and its commercial shipping fleet.

There is a need for an Indo-Sri Lankan Joint Working Group on counter-terrorism, which should focus on destroying through appropriate methods the LTTE's maritime and air capabilities.

Dealing with the LTTE's ground capability is the task of the Sri Lanka army. India should not get involved in it.

More reports from Sri Lanka

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B Raman