The war between the Government of Sri Lanka armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadres has been conventional as well as unconventional.
A significant feature of the unconventional war fought by the government is the deployment of deep penetration assassination squads, known as Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP).
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian Kittinan Sivanesan (51) was killed in a claymore mine explosion last week in the Kanagrayankulam region of the northern mainland, known as the Wanni. The area was under the control of the LTTE.
The LTTE accused the Army’s Deep Penetration Unit (DPU) of being responsible. This was promptly denied. Interestingly, the LTTE refers to the LRRP squads as DPU for some reason.
Instrument of war
The assassination of Sivanesan has once again focused the spotlight on the LRRP/DPU phenomenon that is becoming a crucial factor in the current war.
The LRRP became an instrument of war of the armed forces since the turn of this century. Basic modus operandi of the LRRP is for small groups to clandestinely infiltrate territory controlled by the LTTE and target senior Tiger leaders and key operatives. This is done in two ways.
One is to infiltrate Tiger territory through jungle routes, conduct an operation and return. Sometimes the operatives stay in safe houses within LTTE-controlled areas for days to do this. On other occasions they camp in the jungles and lie in wait for several hours to take on their target.
The usual method is to explode claymore mines with remote devices. In some instances timers have been used. Pressure mines too have been used on a few occasions. It is presumed that these attacks are planned and executed on the strength of precise intelligence.
The other method has been to co-opt civilians living in the Wanni to ‘plant’ mines and target Tiger leaders. This is done through bribery and coercion. In some cases, some LTTE oppressed civilians nursing a grudge against the Tigers have become willing tools.
The usage of hit squads to assassinate the enemy has been practised by different states and different armies in different situations. Despite the ‘heroic glamour’ surrounding these teams, they are, in essence, glorified assassination squads.
‘Legitimately’ sanctioned ‘illegitimate’ operatives.
Therefore, legitimate states and governments do not like to claim credit for these operations. Those involved in such operations are ‘legitimately’ sanctioned ‘illegitimate’ operatives.
Since they are usually controlled by Intelligence officials, these operatives are like spies in enemy territory. If successful they are rewarded ‘quietly’ within the organisational structure. If they fail or are caught in the act, they are disowned. They are ‘heroes’ who cannot be honoured publicly.
Propagandists may try and project these operations as romantic adventures but by their intrinsic nature, they fall under the ‘covert warfare’ category. So officially these acts are not publicised and are usually unacknowledged or denied.
There are other reasons too for keeping these operations and particulars of those involved under wraps. Those engaged in such operations do not want to publicise it because of concern that they or their loved ones may be victimised if identities are exposed.
The other is that those residents in enemy territory who were collaborating with the hit squads may be rendered vulnerable if more details were publicised. In addition, there is the danger of the enemy gaining insight into the methods used if too much publicity is given.
All these reasons necessitate an environment of secrecy around such clandestine operations. Globally, this is the usual practice.
This was how Sri Lanka too conducted these operations in the beginning, during the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. When Tiger leaders were being targeted and the LTTE began accusing state backed DPUs, the government officially denied responsibility. Instead, state propaganda blamed internal squabbles within the LTTE.
It was the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) of 2002 which first ‘admitted’ officially to the existence of the LRRP by stating in the CFA that all such activity would cease.
Then came the bizarre drama where a so-called ‘safe house” of the LRRP was raided in Millennium City, Athurugiriya, and five occupants were arrested. After protracted wrangling, they were released.
It is said that the LRRP was a brainchild of former Army Commander Lionel Balagalle, who had conceived the project earlier as the Head of Military Intelligence. The green light was given during Kumaratunga’s second presidential term.
When the LRRP teams came into existence, three different agencies were involved in setting them up and running them.
Fundamentally, the LRRP teams were a combination of disgruntled ex-Tigers, members of anti-Tiger Tamil groups, Muslim militants and carefully selected Sinhala personnel. They were given highly specialised ‘Commando’ type training here and abroad.
The first phase of LRRP operations commenced in 2001 in both the northern and eastern Tiger-controlled regions.
Among those killed in the east were Batticaloa District Intelligence Head Lt. Col Nizam LTTE, LTTE Batticaloa-Ampara Communications Chief Major Mano and artillery specialists Major Sathiyaseelan and Capt. Thevathasan. Among those killed in the north were LTTE Air Wing Head Col. Shankar and Sea Tiger Commander Lt. Col Kangai Amaran.
Of those who narrowly escaped death at the hands of the LRRP in the north then were former Political Commissar Brig. Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan (twice), his Deputy Major S. Thangan, Vavuniya Special Commander Col. Jeyam and Deputy Military Chief Col. Balraj.
Of those who escaped death in the east were former Regional Chief Col. Karuna, Eastern Political Commissar Karikalan, Jeyanthan Regiment Chief Jim Kelly Thatha and Regional Intelligence Chief Lt. Col. Ramaan.
LTTE out for blood
LRRP activity was shelved after the ceasefire. Most of the Tamil LRRP operatives had been absorbed into Army ranks. The LTTE was out for their blood. Some of these men were allegedly betrayed to the LTTE by influential persons for large amounts of money.
On January 16, 2002, V. Vidyarathan, alias ‘Mike,’ head of the Paramilitary Intelligence Unit of the Army’s LRRP was seized by the LTTE and executed four days later . On February 10, 2002, Lance Corporal “Clarry” was abducted and killed by the Tigers.
On July 3, 2002, Lance Corporal Saundrarajan was captured by the LTTE and later killed. On December 11, 2002, Corporal Ganeshamoorthi, alias Thilakaraj, was killed. Lance Corporal Pulendrarasa was killed on January 3, 2003. Corporal Kadirgamathamby Ragupathi, alias Ragu, was shot dead in Colombo on March 18, 2003.
On April 26, 2003, Lance Corporal Kalirasa Devarasa was killed by the LTTE in Dehiwala, just 45 minutes after leaving the Army Transition Camp at Kohuwala. Lance Corporal Paramanathan Ravindrakumar was shot on July 15, 2003 but survived the attack.
Apart from these Tamil LRRP operatives, the Tigers also targeted important members of the Tamil armed groups collaborating with the Army and described by the LTTE as paramilitaries.
Sinnathambi Ranjan alias Varadan who led a breakaway TELO group working with the Army was shot dead at Aaraiyampathy.
More importantly PLOTE Mohan, who led the PLOTE faction, working with the security forces, was shot dead in Colombo.
Razeek, the chief of the EPRLF faction, working with the Army, was killed by the LTTE during the war itself when a suicide bomber targeted him in Batticaloa town.
It appeared that the LRRP was now toothless as the key Tamil operatives who knew Tiger terrain and acted as guides, pathfinders, safe house providers and information gatherers were either eliminated or had fled abroad. But the LRRP concept experienced a renaissance when the ceasefire unravelled.
The election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as President and the appointment of Sarath Fonseka as Army Chief and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as Defence Secretary brought about a qualitative change in the security situation. With the LTTE playing into Colombo’s hands, a determined no-holds-barred war effort was underway.
The revival of the LRRP was a key element in this new war strategy. Some of the hibernating old timers were recalled. Fresh input was gained through the induction of the LTTE breakaway faction headed by Karuna. Some other northern LTTE deserters were also inducted.
The PLOTE, possessing some clout in Vavuniya, also contributed some input. Above all, there were now several highly trained ‘Sinhala’ operatives with knowledge and experience of the jungle terrain.
The usage of LRRP squads became a powerful weapon in the security force arsenal. Recent events indicate that these squads have developed into killing machines of devastating efficiency.
These ‘new’ LRRP teams have been in operation for quite some time now. There have been successes and failures and also ‘un-claimable successes.’
Tit for tat
Chief among the claimed successes was the killing of LTTE Military Intelligence Head Shanmuganathan Ravichandran alias Col. Arulvendhan, a.k.a. Charles, who was killed in Mannar District on January 5, this year.
Apart from this, the LRRP has targeted several other LTTE leaders too. One of those targeted and injured was Lt. Col. Kumaran, who was manning defences in the Manal Aaru/Weli Oya region.
There have been also incidents where civilians have been victimised through LRRP activity.
In most cases these were ‘accidents,’ though there are a few deliberate acts perpetrated as tit for tat. Meeting terror by terror is part of this government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
For instance, a school bus carrying schoolgirls was targeted in Mannar as revenge for the LTTE attacking a bus with schoolchildren in Moneragala.
Likewise, the killing of the TNA’s Sivanesan on the way to Mallavi can be construed as quid pro quo for D.M. Dassanayake’s killing on the way to Kotte.
But these acts, though ‘successful,’ will always be ‘un-claimable’ and denied due to politically negative consequences.
There have also been instances where ambulance vehicles were targeted by LRRP groups. Apparently, there was method in this madness, as the LTTE was using ambulances to transport key leaders.
There was also the incident where a vehicle carrying women and children was land-mined near Silavathurai in Mannar when a military operation was in progress. This vehicle too belonged to a Tiger leader but tragically, many of his relatives were using it to flee the area.
LTTE under strain
The LTTE is under severe strain due to LRRP activity. One reason for LRRP successes is growing resentment within Wanni residents against the LTTE. Some are clandestinely helping the LRRP. The LTTE Intelligence Division is trying hard to check this and hundreds of Tamils were detained and interrogated.
In one case an entire family was executed on charges of accommodating LRRP members at their house. In another instance the father of a ‘Maaveerar’ (great hero) LTTE martyr was punished for allegedly being in possession of explosive devices.
The LRRP attacks, along with the precise aerial bombardment of high profile LTTE targets, have caused a sea of change in the LTTE way of life in the Wanni. Routes are changed frequently and no longer do important leaders travel in convoys. Clearing of routes is also done as much as possible.
The ‘Ellai Padai’ (border force) civilian militia, along with women’s brigades and Leopard Commando Units, are used to guard the borders. The extent of the area and jungle terrain makes these borders porous.
LTTE media organs used to mock leaders in Colombo for their elaborate security precautions and projected an image that they were living in fear. With the situation being reversed, many LTTE leaders are now resorting to drastic security measures and precautions for reasons of personal safety.
In a bid to stave off charges of LRRP complicity in the killing of Sivanesan, some defenders of the state have argued that it happened 22 miles to the north of Army control lines and was therefore impossible. These defenders, in their zeal to deny state responsibility, are actually underestimating LRRP capabilities.
In recent times there have been many LRRP operations deep in the interior of LTTE territory. This was the case when the LRRP was in its initial phase of 2001 too.
It must be remembered that the successful attack on Col. Shankar happened in Tiger heartland along the Oddusuddan-Puthukudiyiruppu Road in Mullaitivu District.
Lt. Col Kangai Amaran was killed in Aanaivilunthaan in Mannar District near Akkarayankulam in the Kilinochchi District.
The unsuccessful attack on S.P. Thamilselvan happened in Kokkavil in Kilinochchi District.
Compared to those, the Sivanesan incident occurred comparatively ‘closer’ in the Vavuniya District.
The current reality is that LRRP squads can proceed deep into Tiger territory from either the Mannar mainland jungles or the Manal Aaru /Weli Oya region jungles. They can also proceed parallel to the A9 highway on either side via jungle routes.
Those familiar with Wanni areas say that there are several footpaths and elephant trails crisscrossing the jungles that can be used, so LRRP teams going in deep is not impossible.
Demolishing the myth
What is happening now is that the invincibility myth surrounding the Tigers is being eroded. Also, the LRRP successes are demolishing the myth about LTTE terrain being impregnable.
But the man who made a mockery of Tiger territory impregnability was none other than former Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte.
His helicopter crash-landed inside Tiger terrain more than a decade ago. Ratwatte, with his walking stick, and his service chiefs, walked eight miles to Army Forward Defence Lines (FDLs) safely.
It was then that the image of Tiger terrain impregnability was shattered first. Now, with successful LRRP operations, myth demolition continues.