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The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), organisation in Sri Lanka has in the past launched several attacks against their perceived adversaries. Some of these attacks have been against selective targets. The Tigers have been the hunters and on most occasions their quarry had absolutely no chance to survive. So deadly was the Tiger pounce. Recent developments however indicate that the roles have been reversed to a limited extent as far as top rung Tiger leaders are concerned.

The past months have seen a number of its senior and prominent leaders being targeted in landmine ambushes. Some have been fatal. The latest in this list is Vadihalingam Sornalingam alias ‘Col’ Shankar, the head of the LTTE air wing and chief of its military intelligence division.

The situation is indeed ironical because the predators have now become the prey. The past decades have seen Tiger operatives killing a number of persons regarded as enemies in different parts of the island. The LTTE has been able to pick and choose the time, place and targets for operations of this type and execute them meticulously. The Sri Lankan authorities have been unable to prevent these attacks and have also been found wanting in bringing to book the perpetrators. Now the tables are seemingly turned. A pattern is emerging where several senior LTTE activists are being targeted in Tiger controlled regions in systematic fashion.

Col. Shankar’s death

‘Col’ Shankar killed on September 26, in a claymore mine attack in the Oddusuddan area of Mullaitheevu district in the northern mainland of the Wanni was the highest ranking and most senior Tiger leader to be killed in this manner. He was travelling alone along a 7 mile jungle track road from Oddusuddan to Puthukkudiyiruppu in a two seater four wheeler pick up vehicle when the attack took place. A claymore explosive device concealed in the branches of a tree was triggered off. 52 year old Shankar was killed instantly. The time was 10.45 in the morning.

Before that Gangai Amaran the LTTE’s deputy leader of the ‘kadal puli’ sea Tiger division was killed along with his bodyguard in a similiar explosion near Akkaraayan Kulam in the Kilinochchi district. Gangai Amaran was from a family of traditional pearl divers at Silaavathurai in the Mannar district. He had been of great assistance to Shankar in setting up both the LTTE sea Tiger division as well as its underwater attack unit (Neeradi thaakkal pirivu) named after Sulojan. As stated in these columns last week Col. Shankar was a trusted and valuable associate of Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabakharan and had pioneered several ventures like the commissioning of the LTTE’s first big marine vessel ‘Kadal Pura,’ construction of Tiger harbour camps at Sallai, Chundikulam and Nachikkudah, the establishing the anti-aircraft wing etc.

In the eastern province Nizaam the head of the LTTE’s Batticaloa-Amparai political wing was killed when the motor cycle he was travelling on was targeted by a claymore device at Vaathakalmadhu in Nallathanni Odai about 36 kilometres to the south-west of Batticaloa town. The LTTE’s eastern zone communications chief Mano was killed in another incident at Patharaimadam about 6 kilometres to the west of Valaiiravu in Batticaloa. There have also been three different attempts at Vellaveli, Palugaamam and Karadiyanaaru respectively on Ramanan, the LTTE intelligence wing leader for Batticaloa-Amparai districts. Ramanan was fortunate to escape in all three.

Assassination attempts

Other important leaders too have survived such assassination attempts in the north. Balraj the deputy military commander of the LTTE escaped miraculously when his vehicle was targeted at Nainamadhu in the Wanni. Likewise Jeyam another senior commander escaped an attempt at Nedunkerni. The LTTE’s political wing chief SP Thamilchelvan was the target in two attempts.

One attempt was near Iranai Iluppaikulam where his official vehicle was landmined. Thamilchelvan was not inside and his deputy travelling in it survived with injuries. Originally Thamilchelvan was scheduled to meet an inter-religious delegation at Madhu. The Tiger political chief could not make it at the last minute and one of his assistants Sugan had deputised for him. The deputy had used Thamilchelvan’s own official vehicle for the purpose. The landmine went off after he was returning from the meeting. The other and better known attempt was at Kokkavil in Kilinochchi when Thamilchelvan was on his way to meet a Norwegian peace delegation led by Erik Solheim at Mallavi. Like ‘Col’ Shankar and Gangai Amaran Thamilchelvan too was using an interior road from Murigandy-Kokkaavil meeting the Pallamadhu-Vannivilaankulam road at a point between Thunukkaai and Mallavi. The rear vehicle was hit by a landmine while the front vehicle with the Tiger leader inside went forward safely. Thamilchelvan’s chief bodyguard was killed while five others were injured.

Campaign of ambushes

This continuing campaign of ambushes has reportedly angered LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabakharan and caused understandable consternation amid Tiger ranks. The LTTE is in the throes of a crisis. A virtual state of unofficial ’emergency’ has been declared in the LTTE regions of the Wanni. LTTE deputy military commander ‘Col’ Balraj who is second in command to Prabakharan in military matters has been appointed as a special commander for the Wanni region and has been entrusted with a special task and powers by the Tiger numero uno. Balraj’s immediate goal according to well informed sources is to halt this rash of attacks on LTTE leaders and apprehend those responsible as well as others aiding or abetting the killer squads.

The LTTE has in its official press releases accused a “deep penetration commando unit of the Sri Lankan Army” as being responsible for Col. Shankar’s killing as well as other attacks. Pro-LTTE Tamil journals published abroad have stated that the attacks are being perpetrated by small teams of special force commandoes trained by a western power. These squads are said to infiltrate through the jungle terrain of the Wanni into Tiger controlled zone easily and set in place the ambushes. They are supposed to lie in wait with remote controls and trigger the devices off at appropriate moments and then beat a hasty retreat from the location.

It is also suspected that some Tamils living in the Tiger areas are collaborating with the armed forces. They are suspected of providing intelligence, information, supplies and even safe houses at times for the assailants to hide. These alleged collaborators are suspected of being undisclosed members or former members of the various non-Tiger Tamil militant outfits now living as civilians in the Wanni. Other theories about likely suspects include persons sympathetic to former LTTE Deputy Leader Mahathaya who was executed for allegedly conspiring with Indian support against Prabakharan.

Ordinary people acting as mercenaries for the enemy in return for cash incentives is also not ruled out. It is also suspected that Tamil militants associated with the army as ‘para military personnel’ may also be responsible.

It is also interesting to note that while the LTTE officially accuses a ‘deep penetration team’ of being responsible, the Tigers in the east have taken punitive action against Tamil civilians. The LTTE in the east controls the hinterland region to the west of the Batticaloa lagoon known as ‘Paduvaankarai’ (shore of the setting sun) while the government controls the littoral regions to the east of the lagoon known as ‘Eluvaankarai’ (Shore of the rising sun). There were five crossing points across the lagoon for commuting people between both regions. The Tigers have in recent times closed down three of these points to facilitate a greater and more intensive scrutiny of ‘infiltrators’ and also to check explosive devices being smuggled in.

The LTTE in the east also undertook a massive search and arrest operation of places and people suspected of being involved in the ambush campaign. Several persons were detained and interrogated. The LTTE claimed that 37 explosive devices concealed in vantage points and stored in safe houses were seized as a result of the investigation. At least five Tamil civilians were executed for alleged involvement or collaboration in the assassination campaign. Two of these executions were gruesomely horrible as the victims after making a public confession were compelled to self-destruct through exploding the explosive devices they were accused of possessing. It was charged that these persons had ‘betrayed’ the cause for financial remuneration provided by the government.

Infiltrating deep penetration teams

The approach in the north however seems to be different. The LTTE suspects that infiltrating deep penetration teams primarily originate from the Manal Aaru or Weli Oya military complex of military installations situated in a strategic location interdicting the territorial contiguity of the Tamil dominated northern and Tamil majority eastern provinces. The Tigers are now in the process of establishing a tight security cordon around the forward defence lines of the Weli Oya complex in an attempt to prevent or at least contain suspected infiltration.

The LTTE has also intensified its ‘border’ security along the southern line of control between Vidathaltheevu in western Mannar district to Kumulamunai in eastern Mullaitheevu district. The civilian militia known as ‘ellaippadai’ or border force are involved with regular cadres in this. The demarcating line however is almost 120 miles long and consists of several tracts of jungle that are in this case quite porous. If the LTTE is to seal off this border effectively then it has to re-deploy a substantial number of cadres from its strategically important northern front along the axis of Kilaly-Eluth- umadduvaal-Nagar Kovil. There is a severe logistical dilemma here.

Systematic search

According to a Tamil resident of the Wanni with whom this column spoke on the telephone the LTTE has now commenced a systematic search, detain and interrogate campaign. Regular fighter cadres, members of the LTTE’s police force and intelligence wing operatives are engaged in this campaign. Also the LTTE’s ‘Leopards’ commando unit and civilian militia cadres are combing the jungles hoping to flush out deep penetration squads trekking there.

A significant feature in the ambushes are that the targets are in all cases senior and important leaders of the LTTE. Ordinary cadres are not targeted at all. The explosions have been during daytime and in minor roads or jungle tracks. In view of this, LTTE bigwigs have been asked to take certain precautions. There are some tell tale signs pointing to LTTE ‘VIPs’ while travelling.

Only senior LTTE figures travel about in Pajero jeeps or are accompanied by back up vehicles with body guards or travel in convoys. So LTTE leaders have been asked to eschew such travelling procedures in their own interests. Also Tigers use minor, interior roads more often when travelling instead of the major open roads used by the civilians. Almost all the assassinations and assassination attempts occurred in these roads. Now the LTTE also use the longer main roads instead of shorter lesser travelled routes.

Although the LTTE has been pointing the accusing finger at the security forces for the current assassination campaign the government has rejected the allegation. When the Tigers charged the government with ‘Col’ Shankar’s killing, military spokesperson and media director of the defence ministry Brig. Sanath Karunaratne told a newspaper “They (the LTTE) should know better. We had no hand in the matter. Their accusations are false.” Of course Brig. Karunaratne’s various pronouncements in the past have been tinged with more than a reasonable amount of terminological inexactitude allowed an official spokesperson indulging in propaganda for his masters. Thus his denial in this matter is not to be taken as gospel truth and is cited here only to point out the official response to these killings in LTTE territory.

Counter charges have also been made in Colombo in the past that these attacks are a result of a bitter, internecine power struggle within Tiger ranks. State propaganda has focussed on this line for the past few months in a bid to convince the nation and world that internal squabbles and non governmental action are responsible for this state of affairs.

If this were to be so, then the LTTE will certainly not have publicised the killings or assassination attempts in this fashion. It would have been practical to keep the matter under wraps as done before during times of internal dissension like the Mahathaya episode. If the LTTE tried to suppress it there was little chance of the phenomenon coming to light. Instead, the Tigers continue to publicise it incurring as a result an erosion in the myth of invincibility surrounding it. Also the scale and scope of the attacks suggest a far serious cause or causes that cannot be explained away by theories of intra-LTTE strife.

‘Long range assault groups’

Another pointer to the possibility of state agencies being involved in this campaign is the presence of an occasional snippet in the Colombo media about strikes made by ‘long range assault groups.’ The references are vague and no details are given. There have also been exhaustive points of view proposed earlier in the media by Sri Lankan military experts earlier about the need to launch effective assault operations like these to penetrate LTTE areas and selectively target Tiger leaders.

The examples cited were that of American and British special force operations of a similiar nature in confrontations elsewhere. This approach was better than conducting frontal operations resulting in massive losses it was argued. Now there seems to be a ‘silence’ about these ideas in the media because practical action is being undertaken at last perhaps! It is also noteworthy that while overtly disclaiming any responsibility for Col. Shankar’s killing, the security forces have intensified security in the southern areas in the aftermath of Shankar’s death because of possible LTTE reprisals.

If the Sri Lankan forces are indeed responsible for this ambush campaign but not publicising it then that situation too is fraught with irony. The Sri Lankan armed forces have obtained a lot of negative publicity for various ‘failures’ against the LTTE. Now they are supposedly engaged in an effective campaign that is affecting the LTTE. The Tigers’ territorial impregnability is being assailed, its chief leaders being deliberately targeted and cadres being demoralised. The LTTE accuses the armed forces publicly, but those responsible are unable to take credit for the most successful on going operation executed by them. This is because of both the secretive confidentiality of the exercise as well as reluctance on the part of official circles to admit that an assassination campaign is being conducted. A state claiming to be democratic and legitimate cannot openly admit that it is resorting to state terror tactics.

The LTTE however is under severe threat because of this campaign. Its inability to prevent or even reduce the threat as well as the fact that none of the alleged perpetrators have been caught is detrimental to its ferocious image. If the campaign continues and the Tigers are unable to check it then their efficiency will be doubted. Also the charges of this being an internal affair will gather some credence.

Sealing borders

Another problem for the LTTE is the need to deplete other fronts to deploy additional personnel necessary to seal its borders completely. Intensive searches, detentions and interrogation of the public in a bid to weed out suspected collaborative elements are likely to alienate the population under its control.

Recent responses by the LTTE hierarchy to this new phenomenon indicate that the LTTE while going all out to eradicate the danger will also try to wreak vengeance for the killings. ‘Col’ Shankar in particular was a close friend and a long time comrade at arms of LTTE leader Prabakharan. His death is unlikely to be unavenged. An LTTE statement says, “The LTTE leadership shares the Tamil people’s outrage and treats the killing of a senior leader with utmost gravity.”

The phenomenon of Tiger leaders being ambushed in LTTE controlled regions has caused much anger in Tiger ranks. The LTTE sense of outrage expressed in its statements demonstrate the same state of mind that prevailed when the Sri Lankan Air Force kept on strafing and bombing Tamil areas indiscriminately. Colombo went on regardless of Tiger protests and then came Katunayake. World opinion veered around to the LTTE side and even the big powers censured the Kumaratunga regime indirectly by saying ‘violence begets violence.’

Now that the LTTE has not engaged in any assassinations in the south for quite a while is increasingly protesting about the killing of its top notchers. The pattern continues and now Shankar is no more. His death may very well be the breaking or turning point. The LTTE may respond to Shankar’s and the deaths of other stalwarts in a manner similiar to that of what happened in Katunayake in the backdrop of continuous indiscriminate air strikes. This certainly does not augur well for the Kumaratunga regime. Nevertheless the global impact of September 11, events in the USA and current international opinion towards the phenomenon of ‘terrorism’ is likely to restrain and reduce the nature of whatever response the Tigers unleash. The LTTE in recent times has been displaying an unusual degree of sensitivity towards global opinion. Therefore, it is not likely to tarnish its much improved image by indulging in acts that could be labelled easily as ‘terrorist.’

Complicating matters further is the People’s Alliance tie up with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Clause 20 of that agreement says, “The People’s Alliance agrees not to bring in during the one year this memorandum of understanding is in force, proposals for devolution of power or any other proposals that may lead to a controversy until such time that a broad consensus is arrived at through a wideranging dialogue with the participation of all segments of society aimed at reaching a reasonable resolution of the national question.”

Could negotiations commence?

There are some who feel that despite this provision negotiations could commence and go on for the time being until the situation changes. The specific mention of ban on “any other proposal that may lead to a controversy” effectively negates any chance of an immediate round of talks with the LTTE as even matters like a cease-fire, relaxation of Wanni embargo, de-proscription etc. could be deemed as proposals causing controversy. In the long run all hopes of a reasonable settlement are ruled out because insistence on concepts like ‘broad consensus’ and ‘participation of all segments’ and ‘reasonable resolution of the national question’ etc. can only lead to the vetoing of any just settlement by the Sinhala neo-fascist elements.

In such a context where all avenues leading to a negotiated peace have been shut off, the logical alternative for Colombo seems to be nothing other than pursuing war for as long as its agreement with the JVP is in force. The covert operation to infiltrate LTTE controlled regions and assassinate Tiger leaders can only be perceived as part of this military campaign. It is also illuminating that this assassination campaign began almost simultaneously with that of the Oslo inspired peace process taking off effectively. It does seem clear therefore that those who are promoting this covert operation are targeting indirectly the peace process. The national and international peace lobby must realise the full ramifications of this situation and take appropriate measures if a peaceful settlement is genuinely desired.

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