Colombo, February 8, 2008
The Sri Lankan Army Headquarters in the heart of Colombo is among the
most heavily fortified complexes in the country. To get to the office
of Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka, commander of the army, one has
to go through a confusing maze of security checks.
For good reason-a year and a half ago, a suicide bomb attack inside
the headquarters by a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) saw Fonseka
seriously injured and hospitalised for months.
Yet, that only steeled his resolve to wipe out the world's most ruthless
terrorist organisation, whose members parade themselves as freedom fighters
for Sri Lanka's minority Tamil population. (Tamils form 23 per cent
of the 20-million-strong population and LTTE has been waging a 30-year
war for a separate homeland for them.) Since then, Fonseka and his 1.6-lakh-strong
army have inflicted body blows on LTTE.
In less than a year-and-a-half, the army has wrested control of seven
districts in the east and the west, which LTTE had previously controlled.
The Tigers now have effective control over only two districts-Killinochchi
and Mullaitivu-in the north. This is a rump compared to the vast stretches
of coastline where their writ once ran.
The armed forces also recently succeeded in killing two of LTTE's toprung
leaders-Tamil Selvam, the political head, and Shanmuganathan Ravishankar
alias Charles, the military intelligence chief-in surprise strikes.
They narrowly missed striking the feared chief Velupillai Prabhakaran
in late December, when the Air Force scored a direct hit on a bunker,
known as X-ray, that he frequented.
When he didn't make an appearance at Charles's funeral, they suspected
Prabhakaran was injured. Subsequently, intelligence believes that he
is alive and in full command of his forces.
Fonseka and his army are not willing to allow that position to continue
for long. With Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse formally putting
to an end, on January 16, the tattered Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) that
a previous government had entered into with LTTE in 2002, the armed
forces have stepped up their campaign to tighten the noose they had
thrown around the Tiger's last bastion.
In a major offensive, Fonseka has lined up five of the 12 divisions
of his army to engage Prabhakaran and the LTTE army in a decisive operation
to wipe out the organisation.
The commander, who announced a policy of killing at least 10 Tiger
cadres a day, boasts that of late, he has been able to double that number.With
the LTTE army reduced to 3,000-5,000, Fonseka calculates that it can
be wiped out in less than a year.
To ensure that he meets the target, Fonseka has brought under siege
the dense Wanni jungles that act like a natural fortress to the two
remaining districts under LTTE's control.
He has spent a good deal of time and money in training and equipping
his men to fight like the Tigers. Breaking up his battalions into deep
penetration units adept at guerrilla warfare, he has surprised LTTE
by the capacity of his army to inflict maximum damage with minimum casualties.
To stretch LTTE's defences, he has launched a four-pronged attack coming
in from all directions (see chart). While the Tigers engage in conventional
warfare by firing mortar, Fonseka's army moves in small bands of killer
units, laying booby traps, gathering intelligence and destroying infrastructure
like bridges and communication lines.
Fonseka, who is not willing to rush in and strike, says, "We are
taking the territory inch by inch and foot by foot while inflicting
heavy casualties on them. It's only a matter of time before LTTE begins
The younger Rajapakse has been instrumental in transforming the way
the Sri Lankan armed forces fought. A former lieutenant-colonel, who
fought against the Tigers in the late-'80s and the early-'90s, Gotabaya
believes "it is not the weapon but the man behind it that matters
To make sure he has the best men, he has not only doubled the salaries
of the existing rank and file in the army, but has also put aside money
for equipping them with the latest weapons.
Having the President for a brother helped, as there was no political
resistance when he jacked up the defence budget to $1.5 billion (Rs
6,000 crore) in 2007, a 100-per cent increase over the previous year's
budget. Most importantly, he let Fonseka and the chiefs of the other
two forces have a free hand.
Fonseka used the unfettered mandate to radically restructure his army.
With photographs of lions adorning his chamber, the army commander
speaks with a quiet confidence as he describes how he went about shaking
up a moribund, ineffective and corrupt force into a fierce army that
could take on the world's most feared terrorist organisation. (See graphic:
Lankan Army turns the tide)
He also started a major recruitment drive that saw close to 40,000
being inducted into the army in the past year, raising five new divisions.
"We now have 25,000 new bayonets pointing at LTTE, not to mention
the reserve units that can be brought into play if needed," he
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Air Force and Navy, too, have begun to look
smart. After the surprise bomb attacks on Colombo by two light aircraft
that LTTE had smuggled in, the air force has imported radar-reportedly
from India-to improve surveillance.
The Tiger's survival plan
A whole squadron of MIG 27 has been added. With better ground and air
surveillance and bunker-buster bombs, the air force has made successful
The navy, too, got its fair share of change, with better patrol boats
and warships that have seen it destroy much of the Sea Tigers' fleet
and floating arsenal in recent months.
This has severely limited the flow of arms to LTTE from the sea, thereby
diminishing their fighting capability. The Indian Navy has helped by
quietly blockading the Jaffna seas and passing on critical information
about movements of ships to the Sri Lankan Navy. US intelligence, too,
has played a role in increasing the rate of successful interdiction
of ships carrying weapons.
For the embattled LTTE, the options are dwindling. With the US and
Europe designating it as a terrorist organisation, much of its illegal
funding has been blocked.
The territories it had held in the east in the past had helped it get
a constant supply of fresh recruits. With Karuna, a former LTTE eastern
command chief, turning against Prabhakaran, the organisation is considerably
weakened. (See graphic: Spreading terror)
Reportedly, the Tigers are now forced to conscript very young or middle-aged
people not suited for fighting. It hasn't helped that its top leaders
are either in their forties or fifties, making it a middle-aged army-
a far cry from the young, battle-hardened guerrilla force that could
once strike back with great ferocity and win big battles against the
Sri Lankan Army.
Prabhakaran himself is around 53 years old, has become portly, and
is said to be suffering from ailments that possibly include diabetes.
An accidental bomb blast left Soosai, the Sea Tiger chief, confined
to his wheelchair and also killed his son. Balraj, deputy chief of the
military, is also said to be ailing.
As the Sri Lankan Army's bombings get more accurate, Fonseka takes
delight in the fact that he is giving Prabhakaran sleepless nights,
since he has to constantly change his hideouts. The Sri Lankan intelligence
believes that there is no clear line of succession if Prabhakaran is
killed or incapacitated in an attack.
Other reports say he is a computer geek and his father is using him
to boost LTTE's communications via the Internet. Colonel (retd) G. Hariharan,
an Indian military expert, says that after Prabhakaran, Afghan-style
warlordism may arise, with LTTE fragmenting.
Already, the Tigers are showing signs of desperation. They have unleashed
a wave of attacks on civilian targets in a bid to take the pressure
off them in the battle for Wanni.
On the eve of the Independence Day celebrations on February 4, they
penetrated the tight Sri Lankan security. A suicide blast at the Fort
Railway Station saw 12 people, including seven children, being killed.
A bomb had also been planted close to the President's Temple Trees office
and only luck prevented what would have been an embarrassing blast for
LTTE's plan to strike in different towns and not in Colombo alone is
intended to stretch the Sri Lankan internal security forces and get
them to divert some of the army units from the battle for the north.
Already, inflation is running at over 20 per cent, and the cost of
a loaf of bread has gone up from Rs 15 to Rs 35. If LTTE ensures a stalemate
in the war, peoples' patience for the Government may wear thin.
So Rajapakse hustled the All Party Representative Committee (APRC),
which he had appointed to look into the question of devolution, into
submitting an interim report. APRC had recommended the implementation
of the 13th Amendment brought in by the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in 1987,
which had advised the setting up of Provincial Councils with powers
to run matters related to police, education, health and infrastructure.
This has calmed the international community that has tacitly allowed
Rajapakse to continue the war. But there are growing complaints from
the West about human rights violations and media censorship. Internal
resistance is also growing.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the Opposition and the architect of
CFA, does not share the Government's optimism about the war. Nor is
he enamoured by the devolution package being promised to the Tamils.
Wickremesinghe told India Today: "Apart from antagonising the international
community by abrogating CFA, the Government still has not come up with
a credible devolution plan for the Tamils."
By staking his prestige on winning against LTTE, or "putting all
his eggs in the war basket", as a diplomat describes it, Rajapakse
has narrowed his options considerably.
The Tigers may be down, but they are certainly not out. And given their
past history, there is every possibility that they may bounce back and
succeed in bogging down the Sri Lankan Army in a debilitating stalemate.
Rajapakse has embarked on a dangerous game of brinkmanship. If he succeeds
in bagging Prabhakaran, he is certain to win the next elections and
continue his reign. If he fails, well, the dustbin of history is never
short of space.
'We now want only a final solution'
February 7, 2008
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