A Sri Lankan parliamentary delegation visiting Oslo in early March 2001 was told that Norway didn’t see any need for continuing its role in Sri Lanka once the government and the LTTE returned to the negotiating table.
The assurance was given by none other than Norwegian Special Envoy spearheading the Sri Lankan peace process Eric Solheim. The visiting delegation led by the then Speaker Anura Bandaranaike comprised ruling People’s Alliance, UNP, TULF and EPDP MPs. The JVP ignored the Norwegian invitation.
The Norwegian official likened his role to that of a post box. Solheim also declared that his responsibility was to receive and deliver messages. Commenting on Sri Lanka’s efforts to persuade the UK to proscribe the LTTE, Solheim denied suggestions that Norway had interfered with the British decision (My job is to accept and deliver messages––The Island March 7, 2001).
Solheim was speaking following an EU statement in Colombo that a British ban on the LTTE wouldn’t affect the ongoing Norwegian bid to bring the warring parties back to the negotiating table. Responding to a media query in Colombo, Chairman of the EU parliamentary delegation, Gerard Collins said that a British ban couldn’t be an obstacle to the Norwegian initiative. The then 15-member EU, Collins said, wanted the British to proscribe all terrorist groups, including the LTTE. The EU delegation was meeting the media having had an opportunity to visit the Jaffna peninsula, including Colombuthurai, regained by troops since the resumption of offensive operations on Sept 3, 2000. Collins refused to comment on the GoSL’s refusal to respond positively to the LTTE’s unilateral declaration of a ceasefire on Dec. 24 midnight 2000. Collins expressed the belief that it was up to Norway to bring the warring parties back to the negotiating table (EU says UK ban on LTTE will not affect Norwegian peace bid––The Island Feb 25).
During the second week of March 2001, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle declared that the LTTE had had no option but to declare a unilateral truce on Dec. 24 midnight 2000 due to heavy losses suffered in confrontations with his troops. The SLA chief attributed the LTTE’s decision to the success of Rivikirana and Kinihira offensives since the change of Jaffna command. A jubilant Lt. Gen. claimed that his troops had caused heavy losses which compelled the LTTE to vacate a 140-sq. km. area adjacent to the Jaffna town. Balagalle succeeded Sri Lal Weerasooriya on Aug 25, 2000. Surprisingly, the then Jaffna Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Anton Wijendra alleged that the LTTE was bolstering its strength on the Jaffna front. He said that the so-called unilateral ceasefire could be a ruse to prepare for a major showdown (Severe battering by troops forced LTTE to talk peace, says army chief––The Island Marc 14, 2001).
Gen. Balagalle declared that the SLA would receive a further boost shortly. Although the SLA chief didn’t go into details, he was talking about taking delivery of multi barrel rocket launchers, T-55 AM2 tanks and three mobile (Tank) workshops. The PA felt that the proposed Norwegian-led talks shouldn’t be an obstacle to further strengthening of the armed forces (Proposed peace talks will have no impact on arms build-up––The Island March 18, 2001).
The SLA obviously misread the ground situation. The top brass didn’t take into consideration that the LTTE had the Jaffna MSR up to Pallai and strong forces deployed across the frontline from Kilali to Nagarkovil on the Vadamaratchchy coast.
The SLN lost a Fast Attack Craft off Mullaitivu on March 21, 2001. The ill-fated craft (P-495) was one of the three vessels on patrol to intercept LTTE ships engaged in arms smuggling operations. It was the first major LTTE operation since the group declared a unilateral ceasefire on the midnight of Dec. 24, 2000. At the time of the confrontation, the LTTE was engaged in a major arms smuggling operation. The LTTE boarded the badly damaged P-495 and removed whatever it could before the vessel sank at 11 am.
(Navy loses Dvora patrol craft off Mullaitivu–The Island March 22, 2001 and Major effort by LTTE to replenish military supplies––The Island March 23, 2001).
In the last week of March, 2001, Sri Lanka took delivery of six advanced training aircraft from China to strengthen the ongoing project to train fighter pilots. The acquisition of six K8 aircraft came close on the heels of the SLAF raking delivery of ten PT 6 trainer aircraft (SLAF acquires six advanced training aircraft––The Island April 1, 2001). The acquisition of Israeli Kfirs, MiG 27s and Mi 24 forced the SLAF to enhance its training programme to meet future requirements.
The UK proscribed the LTTE on March 27, 2001. The LTTE reacted angrily to the UK move.
Both the government and the LTTE prepared for a major confrontation while the Norwegians were busy making arrangements for resumption of talks. In early April 2001, the government declared that it would never give in to LTTE demands. The government insisted that the talks could resume anytime and fighting in the North shouldn’t be an obstacle. The government reiterated its position after Norwegian Ambassador Jon Westborg briefed the government as regards the LTTE’s demands subsequent to having met the LTTE leadership in the Vanni (Government rejects LTTE’s pre-requisites to resume talks–The Island April 8, 2001).
In mid April 2001, the SLA took delivery of eight 120 mm RM 70 multi barrel rocket launchers, 25 T 55 AM 2 tanks, six tank recovery vehicles, six tank transporters and three mobile workshops. The arms transfer took place during a five-day suspension of offensive operations declared by the government in view of the National New Year and the Easter. It was one of the biggest single transfers of equipment during the conflict. Czech supplier MPi had provided eight mobile rocket launchers, 50,000 rockets and 11 T 55 AM 2 tanks the previous year. All mobile rocket launchers were given free, whereas the GoSL had to purchase expensive rockets (Army bolsters fire power during unilateral New Year, Easter truce––The Island April 15, 2001).
An attempt by an influential section of the government to acquire rockets from another East European country angered the Czech government. However, it remained Sri Lanka’s main supplier until the conclusion of the conflict.
In April 2001, the President’s Office announced that Sri Lanka’s highest gallantry award, Parama Weera Vibhushanaya (PWV) would be posthumously awarded to Colonel Aslam Fazly Laphir and Captain G. S. Jayanath of the Special Forces and Commandos, respectively. Laphir was killed on July 18, 1996 during an abortive air borne assault to save the beleaguered Mullaitivu base. By the time Laphir landed with his men, the LTTE was in control of Mullaitivu after crushing SLA resistance following a seven hour battle.
Capt. Jayanath was killed on Dec. 4, 1997 on the Vanni front. The LTTE killed 180 commandos, including several officers, in a coordinated assault which sent shockwaves through the SLA. The LTTE lured the commandos by setting up a dummy artillery position and slaughtered some of the best fighting men (CBK to confer highest gallantry award to Colonel Laphir, Captain Jayanath––The Island April 15, 2001).
A simmering controversy over alleged corruption in arms procurement led the UNP to call for the appointment of a special Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to examine the millions of dollars worth transactions. The UNP made its move in the wake of Justice Minister Batty Weerakoon acknowledged that there was corruption at the highest levels of the administration. The veteran politician was speaking on March 13, 2001, during the budget debate. The minister declined to name those involved in corrupt deals. The then UNP Assistant Leader Gamini Atukorale, MP, on April 5, 2001 challenged the government to appoint a PSC. Atukorale lashed out at the government over the acquisition of two C 130 medium lift aircraft and a third. Two C 130s capable of operating off short runways were acquired in March and Sept 2000 from the Royal Air Force (RAF).
Tamil political parties pushed the government to extend the five-day suspension operations declared during the National New Year and Easter. The government insisted that the suspension would be temporary. (Government ignores calls to extend ‘no offensive period’––The Island April 18). A major confrontation between the SLN and the Sea Tigers in the third week of April 2001 damaged three Fast Attack Craft. The SLN captured eight LTTE cadres following the confrontation off Mullaitivu. The Sea Tiger convoy was detected 32 nautical miles northeast of Mullaitivu. The SLN confronted the convoy 22 nautical miles off Mullaitivu and a fierce battle ensued. The SLN destroyed four Sea Tiger craft and damaged three others. (Navy hits Sea Tiger convoy off Mullaitivu, captures eight cadres––The Island April 21, 2001).
UNP’s internal war
On the political front, an influential section in the UNP made an attempt to oust party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in early 2001. Wickremesinghe survived the bid. The move against Wickremesinghe was made in the wake of the UNP plan to defeat the third reading of the budget on April 11, 2001. It was the first major attempt to force Wickremesinghe to give up party leadership. The rebel group swung into action after Wickremesinghe, accompanied by his wife, Maithree, National List MP Milinda Moragoda and Dr. S. Walson left for Oslo. It was widely believed that the then Speaker Anura Bandaranaike alerted Wickremesinghe to the conspiracy against him (Majority with Ranil, say his supporters––The Island April 25, 2001).
In the wake of a debilitating crisis in the UNP, the PA finalised plans for a major offensive on the Jaffna front. The then Prime Minister and Acting Defence Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake declared that the government wouldn’t accept LTTE’s preconditions for talks. The SLFP heavyweight said that the government was ready to regain the territory lost in the northern region. The PM was addressing a meeting at the International Buddhist Centre, Panadura on April 20, 2001. The Prime Minister strongly defended the SLA’s action at Parayanlankulam, about 5.5 kms east of Madhu junction, where US journalist Marie Colvin (44) was wounded in a skirmish between troops and the LTTE (PM rejects LTTE pre-requisites to resume talks––The Island April 22, 2001).
On the morning of April 25, 2001, the SLA launched Operation Agnikheela I, to expand the Eluththumaduval defence line. The operation got underway at 5.30 am, a few hours after the LTTE launched a heavy mortar attack on Muhamalai, Kilali and Nagarkovil causing many casualties. A confident Lt. Gen. Balagalle arrived in Palaly as troops were making headway, though the situation changed later in the day. (Army mounts Agnikheela 1: regains more territory––The Island April 26, 2001). The SLA top brass soon realised that troops couldn’t penetrate strong LTTE fortifications. The Yohrtd withstood heavy artillery and mortar attacks as well as air strikes. The first major operation in 2001 was in disarray. The SLA had no alternative but to call off the operation. It was a humiliating setback. The SLA believed that the deployment of two Divisions would force the LTTE to abandon Pallai. Although they regained approximately eight square kms, a series of devastating counter attacks caused heavy losses among troops. The SLA withdrew, leaving behind bodies of about 100 personnel which were later returned by the LTTE through the ICRC. The SLA lost about 200 personnel. Almost 900 received injuries (Fall back to save lives: Pallai offensive called off––The Island April 29, 2001). In fact, the SLA launched Agnikheela to regain Elephant Pass. It was the most ambitious project launched by Lt. Gen. Balagalle since President Chandrika Kumaratunga picked him over one of the most decorated soldiers, Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera to command the SLA. Agnikheela was launched two days after the LTTE called off its unilateral ceasefire declared at midnight Dec 24, 2000. It said in a media statement issued on April 23, 2001:
“We remain seriously committed to peace and to peacefully resolving the protracted ethnic conflict though we are compelled to withdraw our self-proclaimed cessation of hostilities, which turned out to be a futile exercise as Sri Lanka has failed to recognise its constructive meaning and purpose. Our liberation organisation will continue to support and cooperate in every possible way with the Norwegian government in its untiring and noble effort to bring about peace and a negotiated political settlement to the Tamil national conflict.”
Having crushed the SLA’s offensive on the Jaffna front, the LTTE launched a major attack on government positions at Nagarkovil on April 28, 2001. Although the SLA managed to beat back the assault, the LTTE clearly had the upper hand on the northern front (LTTE take the offensive––The Island April 30). The SLA never tried to advance towards Pallai until Oct 2006. That attempt, too, failed with the SLA suffering heavy losses. Pallai remained in the hands of the LTTE until the final phase of SLA operations during Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure.