- Both sides accuse each other of intensifying hostilities
- Foreign Ministry issues tough guidelines for visits by diplomats to North, East
- How the German envoy took Italian Ambassador to hospital
The LTTE mortar attack on diplomats, United Nations and Government officials twelve days ago has had its sequel.
Colombo-based foreign diplomats have now been banned from undertaking visits to operational areas in the North and East without the express permission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Such permission, the Ministry has said in a note to Colombo-based diplomatic missions, should be obtained three weeks ahead of a planned visit. The note sent out last week calls upon them to adhere to this procedure which had also been laid out in previous notes.
This in effect means that no other Minister will be able to sponsor visits for diplomats to the operational areas without the express approval of the Foreign Ministry. A high ranking Government official, who did not wish to be named, said yesterday such Foreign Ministry approval would only be granted in consultation with the Ministry of Defence. "That is to ensure security conditions in the areas the diplomats planned to visit were normal and the visits did not hinder any ongoing operational activity by the Security Forces," the official said.
The ruling came as senior Government officials took stock of the events that unfolded after the February 27 mortar attack on the Weber Stadium in Batticaloa. This began when an Air Force Mi-17 helicopter touched down with diplomats, UN and government officials at the Weber Stadium in Batticaloa.
It has come to light that there were no contingency plans and even the diplomats were forced to fend for themselves in the ensuing melee. Some of the events, which Government officials have come to know, have led to concerns at the highest levels.
One such instance was the experience of German Ambassador Juergen Weerth. He was upset to find his Italian colleague, Pio Mariani lying on the ground bleeding with a head injury. There was so much of panic and confusion that those in the Stadium were rushing for cover from the mortar attacks. There had been no one to help the diplomats and UN officials who were not familiar with the area or with what was going on. Mr. Weerth helped the Italian envoy stand up. He had his right hand across Mr. Mariani's shoulder and walked him out of the stadium. There had been more signs of panic on the road outside. People were running. Motorists were tooting their horns to make a hurried get away.
Ignoring the confusion, Mr. Weerth had walked towards two armed soldiers who were on duty along the roadside. He had asked one of them for directions to the hospital. He pointed the area, some distance away. It took another soldier, a good Samaritan who was driving in that direction in an empty Army vehicle, to offer the two envoys a lift to the hospital. He dropped them there and drove away.
The two envoys were first directed to an Out Patients Department (OPD). Evidently, some hospital staff did not recognize them. Perhaps they thought the duo were tourists or foreign journalists. One of staffers was to remark that senior hospital officials were busy since the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe and some diplomats had arrived in Batticaloa.
Ambassador Weerth had walked towards a person clad in a shirt and tie. He had assumed the person was someone in authority at the hospital. He was right. It was a doctor who was in the management staff. Upon being introduced, the doctor took the two envoys into a larger room which was a hive of activity. More doctors there were busy with various chores. Some attending to the wounds of Security Forces personnel just brought in, others tending to patients and the nursing staff cleaning fresh wounds of those hit by the mortars.
Ambassador Mariani was promptly put on a wheeled stretcher. His head injury, the result of a small piece of shrapnel hitting the back of his head, was cleaned and surgically dressed. A Government official in Colombo said that at this stage, there was a comical diversion. A hospital staffer walked up to Ambassador Weerth to tell him he had visited Germany thrice. He asked whether the German envoy could arrange a Schengen Visa for him. This visa entitles a traveller to visit any European Union country instead of Germany alone. Mr. Weerth was diplomatic enough to tell the staffer that the matter could be discussed later and to kindly pay attention to Mr. Mariani. By then, Minister Samarasinghe had realized that the two envoys were missing from the group that arrived at the Weber Stadium. He had sent a vehicle to get them transported from the hospital to the office of the Deputy Inspector General (DIG).
Last week's report on this page made reference to the Ambassador for France in Sri Lanka who was one of those who arrived at the Weber Stadium. Inadvertently his name was given as Jean-Bernard de Vaivre. He was the former Ambassador. The name, as pointed out in a note to the The Sunday Times by the Press Service of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka should be Michel Lummaux. Yet, ironic enough that the Embassy's Press Service does not seem to be aware that their own Colombo website (http://www. ambafrance-lk.org) gives the name of the former Ambassador Mr.de Vaivre. Perhaps Mr. Lummaux should get his own Press Service to correct this to include his name. That will help more Sri Lankans to know that Mr. de Vaivre has long been replaced.
The days that followed the mortar attack on Weber Stadium have seen enhanced military activity in the East. Security Forces have begun assaults on several Tiger guerrilla positions both in the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts. In Trincomalee the focus is to prevent the guerrillas from using the contiguous land route north of the strategic port city and to prevent them from expanding their bases in the area. One such base is said to be in Kumburupiddy where measures are under way to expand. Military officials say supplies to this base were being moved by sea through the eastern coastal village of Kuchchaveli (north of Trincomalee). Some areas dominated by the guerrillas have now been brought under Security Forces control.
In the Batticaloa district, the main focus of the Security Forces, as previously announced, has been Toppigala. This week has seen a rapid exodus of civilians from the area. One time residents, who were eye witnesses, say small groups of Security Forces were moving in stealthily to search and destroy guerrilla hideouts. This has raised fears among civilians that they may be caught up in escalated hostilities in the weeks to come. This has triggered off the civilian exodus. Contrary to reports that an all out land based offensive (backed by air cover) had begun, Army sources confirmed yesterday "small group" attacks by Special Forces and Commandos were continuing in and around Toppigala and other areas. They said the measures adopted were forcing the guerrillas to flee from place to place.
The Army and commandos of the Police Special Task Force (STF) are also undertaking joint operations against Tiger guerrillas. On Friday eight STF commandos were killed in a guerrilla ambush at Periyapullumalai in the Batticaloa district. Four of the commando bodies, taken away by the guerrillas, were handed over yesterday to the members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to be handed over to the STF.
On the other hand, guerrilla pistol groups are also reported to have infiltrated Batticaloa town and its environs with plans to attack targets said to include top Security Forces, Police and Government officials. The Army captured Vakarai and its environs in a two stage operation that began on October 30 and officially ended on January 15, this year. Enhancing the military activity in and around Toppigala is other military action, the result of the guerrilla mortar attacks on the Air Force Base and the Weber Stadium on February 27. Security Forces have begun shelling guerrilla positions in areas near Batticaloa including Eravur, Kiran, Vellaweli, Vavunativu and Paddipallai. This has also led to an exodus of civilians in the villages for fear they may get caught up in the battles that would follow.
These developments come as the Army concluded week-long religious ceremonies countrywide to invoke blessings for them to conduct all its activities successfully. A signal sent out early this month by Colonel K.R.P. Rowel, (on behalf of the President of the Buddhist Bala Mandalaya of the Army) to Security Forces Commanders, Divisional Commanders, Sector Commanders and Deputy Sector Commanders said:
"Chanting of the Jaya Piritha and conducting of Bodi Pooja"
"The Army Commander has advised that steps should be taken by headquarters, units and sub units to chant the Jaya Piritha and conduct Bodhi Pooja for a week long period continuously from March 2, 2007 enabling the Army to conduct all its activities successfully and that lives of all soldiers including the Army Commander are protected.
"Accordingly steps should be taken to organize to hold the Bodhi Pooja and chant the Jaya piritha at the temples close to the army camps or within the camps at Headquarters, unit or sub unit level without endangering the lives of those taking part in such events. You are advised that all information about the events organized at headquarters, unit or sub unit level should be conveyed before 10.00 a.m. March 2, 2007 so that the details could be forwarded to the Commander of the Army.
"Only for sectors and sub sectors - Make arrangements to chant the Jaya Piritha and hold Bodhi Pooja in the main temples in your area as advised above and send the details of such programmes." The religious ceremonies came at a time when there are clearly signs of an escalation of military activity not only in the East but also in the North. This is in addition to the western seaboard and the guerrilla dominated Wanni.
Last Monday, LTTE Political Wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan warned Norway's Ambassador Hans Brattskar that "the present soft approach of the international community towards the GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) is not going to change its plans and will only contribute to worsening situation leading to bloodbath in the island." According to the LTTE Peace Secretariat website Mr. Thamilselvan had briefed Ambassador Brattskar "about the serious human rights and humanitarian situation." He had also pointed out that the "GOSL is showing no sign of letting up on its military intent and is continuing with its daily attacks on the people in the east." The website added, "Thamilselvan also pointed out that LTTE intelligence gathering has revealed large scale military personnel and equipment being moved into Manalaru (Weli Oya) near Mullaitivu."
Interesting enough, even before Mr. Thamilselvan had complained of a build up by the Security Forces at Weli Oya, the guerrillas have adopted a number of counter measures fearing an advance. Additional cadres, including specific groups tasked to carry out mortar attacks, have been positioned. New trenches were being dug to further fortify their defence lines. Guerrilla intelligence cadres have been tasked to observe the frontlines of Army positions.
The security establishment in Colombo, however, holds a different view. They say there is evidence that the LTTE was making hectic preparations in several key areas. They include plans to attack Government-held Jaffna peninsula. Groups of guerrilla cadres have infiltrated the peninsula to carry out attacks on troops. The guerrillas have warned that civilians leaving the peninsula by sea would be targets. Guerrilla positions in the line that divides Security Forces held areas were being fortified with additional cadres and weaponry including mortar and artillery.
Other areas where there have been guerrilla build up, they say, are Mannar and Vavuniya. In Mannar north the LTTE had poured in large number of additional cadres. This is to provide depth to their defended localities in the event of a Security Forces advance. The LTTE had believed such an attack was possible along the coastal stretch north of Mannar - a move that would have the Sea Tiger base at Viduthaltivu, a nerve centre of Sea Tiger activity, vulnerable.
In Vavuniya, fears of confrontations between the Security Forces and the guerrillas have led to a departure of civilians. LTTE pistol groups and other infiltrated cadres have stepped up attacks on troops and police. The number of incidents in the town area in the past weeks has increased. The move has prompted Security Forces to step up search operations. It has led to arrests of guerrilla suspects from whom troops have learnt of plans to step up violence.
The Army has just raised its 57 Division. Named as officiating General Officer Commanding (GOC) is Brigadier S.R. Manawaduge. He was earlier Director (Plans) at Army Headquarters. There will be three Brigades under this Division each under the charge of a Lieutenant Colonel.
The two sides, the Security Forces and the Tiger guerrillas, have again accused each other of preparing for enhanced hostilities. Mr. Thamilselvam warns the worsening situation would lead to "bloodbath in the island." The Army, on the other hand, has held Jaya Pirithas and Bodhi Poojas countrywide to "conduct all its activities successfully and that lives of all soldiers including the Army Commander are protected."
Amidst the increased fighting in the east, threats in the North and other areas, the coming weeks will, no doubt, show how the undeclared Eelam War IV is headed. War has clearly taken precedence over peace and portends to continue.