Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP), also referred to as deep penetration hit squads are very much in the news today. Reputed political commentators are hailing President Kumaratunga for officially sanctioning the LRRP project and giving the green light for hits on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) command structure. The continuing inquiry of the Athurugiriya arsenal regularly throws up fresh yet sordid details of how a deadly 'secret weapon' like the LRRP covert action programme could be subverted for purposes not originally intended. It was the Athurugiriya incident that exposed the LRRP secret to the world at large.
Media reports reveal that persons connected with the LRRP are being systematically hunted down by the Tigers. An elaborate campaign is underfoot to blame conscientious police officers for doing their duty diligently and make them scapegoats for the LRRP fiasco. Efforts are being made to deflect attention away from the frightening ramifications of that episode and propagate a viewpoint that the country's national security has been compromised. Army Commander Lionel Balagalle has appointed a military court of inquiry with a restricted mandate that can only result in that tribunal functioning as a 'kangaroo court' and arrive at an obvious and foregone conclusion.
There is however much obfuscation and distortion of the real facts surrounding the LRRP covert action programme. The trial by media of the persons involved can only disclose partial truths. The loaded probe commissions initiated by Balagalle whose hands are extremely unclean on this matter cannot be informative in an impartial sense either. Persons involved in the Athurugiriya incident have been threatening to seek 'justice' for quite a while now without translating their words into action. Such a course of action should be welcomed as judicial proceedings held in an open court could shed more light on the dark and murky LRRP project.
It is doubtful whether those 'affected' by the Athurugiriya arrest will ever come forward and seek a legal remedy despite the self-righteous howls because of the dictum 'seek justice with clean hands.' Even if such a development occurs, the trial could only elicit part of the truth. What is required therefore in the larger interests of the country is a full-fledged public probe into the whole LRRP project with special emphasis on what transpired at Athurugiriya. Such a probe could de-mystify the LRRP hit squad project for what it is worth and prevent vested interests from misusing such types of covert activity for ulterior purposes.
Engaging in covert action projects to combat the Tamil guerrilla movement was first mooted in the mid-eighties when Lalith Athulathmudali was national security minister and Ravi Jayewardene security advisor under the J.R. Jayewardene government. Various blueprints were formatted by Israeli Shin Beth operatives and ex-SAS British mercenaries The go-ahead was given for some acts. The most notorious of these were some of the massacres of Sinhala civilians in the border areas. Hit squads impersonating Tamil militants executed them. Others involved fomenting friction between Tamils and Muslims in the east.
When the LTTE succeeded along with other groups in confining the army to military camps in the peninsula and creating a semi-liberated state in Jaffna, attempts were made to infiltrate and assassinate top Tiger figures. It is unclear as to how successful these missions were but Lalith Athulathmudali himself boasted to some foreign correspondents that the assassination attempt on former LTTE Jaffna Commander Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias Kittu was a "hit" scored by Sri Lankan intelligence. It was not publicised much in the Colombo based media. Subsequently Athulathmudali's claim was disputed by other observers who felt it was an internal matter. After the fall from grace of Gopalaswamy Mahend-rarajah alias Mahattaya the assassination bid on Kittu was also attributed among many things to his machinations.
The setting up of Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols to infiltrate LTTE controlled territory and assassinate top Tiger leaders was proposed to the Kumaratunga regime in 1996. It was suggested first by 'freelancing' intelligence consultants linked to the state. Plans were formulated in furtherance of this idea by Lionel Balagalle who was then the director of military intelligence. It is an open secret in defence circles that the LRRP project was fathered by Balagalle himself who was very much attached to this pet project.
When the LRRP project proposal was submitted to President Kumaratunga for approval she rejected it out of hand. Kumaratunga, to her credit, abhorred such types of covert activity then. With her background of being involved in fiery French student politics of the late sixties, Chandrika hated all types of covert action for which the CIA was blamed then. Kumaratunga's policy as president was to defeat the LTTE militarily and not indulge in low level covert action. The project was shelved temporarily.
It was resurrected in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on Kumaratunga in December 1999. Kumaratunga re-elected as president was angry and vulnerable. Shedding her earlier inhibitions she approved two covert action projects. One was the elimination of persons suspected of being LTTE supporters or sympathisers in the south. Intelligence operatives had already monitored activity of some targets and had even established links with some of them.
After getting the go-ahead signal, a high profile Tamil lawyer cum politician was decoyed away from home and gunned down brutally in Colombo. A red herring that a Sinhala fascist outfit was responsible was strewn across the trail. The reaction to the killing was tremendous with a massive public outcry. With the finger of guilt being pointed by many to the then occupant of Temple Trees, the powers that be became worried about continuing with that project and so it was put on hold. Thus many other Tamils on that list are alive today.
The second project of setting up LRRP teams was also approved by Kumaratunga in 2000 but that too was put on the backburner because of the fallout to the first phase of the "elimination of the Tiger network." Also, the Norwegian facilitated peace process had begun and attempting to infiltrate the Wanni and assassinating LTTE leaders in the Wanni would have been problematic then. Subsequently in 2001 the governing elite in Colombo found the ongoing peace process an embarrassment. It was decided to provoke the Tigers into abandoning their unilateral ceasefire and resorting to war again. The LRRP plan of assassinating top LTTE leaders was regarded as suitable to goad the Tigers into war again.
Even as the plan was being put into action the armed forces launched a massive operation code-named 'Agni Kheela' to retake Elephant Pass. It was routed conclusively by the LTTE. This made the defence top brass realise that invading and acquiring Tiger territory through frontal assaults was ruled out for the time being. So insidious LRRP hit squads had to be deployed not only to disrupt the peace process but also as a means to hit back at the enemy. The state had been reduced to the level of 'terrorism.' If the LTTE could infiltrate the concrete jungles of Colombo and wipe out human targets, the LRRP too could do so in the north east jungles was the logic. The successful LTTE attack on Katunayake spurred the deep penetration squads further.
The LRRP was a top secret project launched covertly by military intelligence. But Defence Ministry circles say that Lionel Balagalle was personally supervising the programme from its inception. Specially trained commandos and from the special forces were deployed. Also inducted were Tamil and Muslim ex-militants from the north east. They brought in the intelligence input and knowledge of terrain required. The Muslims were from the home guard units doubling up as groups known as 'Jihad' and 'Hizbullah' etc. The Tamils were ex-LTTE men from the 'Mahathaya' faction, members of the EPRLF's 'Razeek' group and from the PLOTE faction led by Mohan. Some of these were inducted into the army as regulars while others collaborated on an assignment basis. Some Tamil civilians were also paid well to provide information and safe houses.
The LRRP squad made its first big hit by exploding a claymore mine at Kokkavil. LTTE Political Wing Chief, S.P. Thamilchelvan was targeted but the wrong vehicle was blown up and it was only the bodyguard who succumbed. Thamilchelvan was on his way to meet Norwegian Peace Envoy Erik Solheim at Mallavi. The LTTE charged publicly that the "claymore blast was set off by a deep penetration team of the Sri Lanka Army." Defence Ministry Spokesman Sanath Karunaratne denied government forces were responsible. "We have no involvement whatsoever in this," Karunaratne said. "This is an area where we don't have our troops."
Thereafter, several such attacks occurred at regular intervals in the north east. Top LTTE leaders were targeted. Among those killed were Pirapaharan's close friend and confidante, Col. Shankar, the head of the LTTE Air Wing. Lt. Col. Gangai Amaran, the deputy chief of the Sea Tigers was killed. Major Nizam, the eastern regional intelligence head was also killed. Among those who escaped assassination attempts were Thamilchelvan, Deputy Military Chief, Balraja, Wanni Commander, Jeyam, Batticaloa-Amparai Commander, Karuna Amman and Eastern Regional Political Commissar, Karikalan.
The LTTE's accusations that an army deep penetration squad was responsible was denied by the state. Instead counter propaganda that the killings were due to internecine fighting between LTTE cadres was propounded. Ironically the army denials were believed by many in the south because they never thought the armed forces were capable of such successful strikes. On the other hand, the armed forces enjoying some degree of success through the LRRP project could not flaunt it publicly. They were denying the only successful project they had launched in many years.
This was because the LRRP project, though euphemistically termed as covert action, was nothing but an exercise in cold blooded assassination. It was a glaring example of state terrorism. If the LTTE was terrorist because it targeted prominent government figures in Colombo and killed innocent civilians as 'collateral damage,' the LRRP assassinations also could be described as terroristic. It was not top LTTE leaders who alone died, but also civilians. A pathetic example was the blowing up of a tractor with civilians at Vaakharai in the east. Thus, in spite of the high degree of success achieved, neither the government nor the armed forces could take public credit for it. No democratically elected government claiming to fight a just war and dependent on western aid could own up publicly to deploying killer squads deliberately. Likewise no self-respecting army could claim responsibility either.
The LRRP activity however troubled the LTTE greatly. The Tiger reputation of impregnability and invincibility had been eroded greatly. Moreover the LTTE supremo Pirapaharan himself was vulnerable. The Tigers combed the north east jungles and border areas with their leopard commandoes and also the border security forces. The intelligence wing conducted a deep and wide ranging search. Also top LTTE leaders changed their mode of travelling in a bid to avert attention.
The LTTE was successful to some extent initially in identifying civilian accomplices and uncovering safe houses in the east. Five persons including a woman were executed and 29 claymore mines seized. A Tiger suicide bomber exploded himself in Batticaloa town and killed three Tamils working on the deep penetration project as part of military intelligence.
A major windfall for the LTTE was when the Tigers arrested a group of five men in the western regions of Batticaloa in December last year. They were suspected to be LRRP squad members. It was a heterogenous mix of Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala persons. Although some initial publicity was given in LTTE journals, a news blackout set in soon after. Obviously, the Tigers were keeping the matter under wraps for further interrogation and information gathering. Interestingly there was not a whimper in the south regarding this development.
This was understandable because officialdom could not accept openly that the killer squad was theirs. It was thought then that the LTTE would expose the capture of LRRP men at a conveniently time and embarrass the state. It is now believed that upon finding the group had been responsible for some killings the squad had been executed. Also, much information about the inner workings of the LRRP squads was also gleaned. This however was not put to much use as the December 5 elections saw Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming premier, leading to a transformation of the political climate.
The discovery of an arms cache including thermobaric weapons at Athurugiriya along with 66 LTTE uniforms and cyanide capsules was a further revelation and confirmation of the LRRP phenomenon. It proved among other things that the deadly and destructive thermobaric fire bombs were being used by the army. Balagalle had denied such allegations earlier as these weapons are tabooed by most civilised nations. Few governments would use them against their own people.
Moreover the discovery of LTTE uniforms, cyanide capsules and the presence of Tamil speaking personnel indicated that the 'dirty tricks department' was capable of conducting terrible acts and pinning the blame on the LTTE.
Interestingly enough and to the eternal shame of any professional army, the arrested persons through media outlets blew their cover wilfully. No covert action group or person would ever own up if captured or arrested but the Athurugiriya crowd did so. They claimed that they had engaged in LRRP work in the east and that they were in Colombo in that respect. In one move, the covert action programme was exposed by persons wanting to be freed from arrest, After an inexplicable initial silence, Balagalle also began to support the group who were later released.
It was widely suspected that there was a plot to assassinate Wickremesinghe and pin the blame on the LTTE. The squad in Athurugiriya was thought to be part of that. The explanation proffered eagerly by the arrested persons that they were part of a LRRP team was seen as an excuse to avoid apprehension. Patriotism and interests of national security inevitably invoked by anyone needing to hide anything sinister were bandied about. What many suspected was that the covert action programme was being abused to wipe out a political rival.
There were also reports that the five arrested at Athurugiriya had nothing to do with the LRRP squads at all. The police officer investigating the case has been pilloried and pressurised but nevertheless continues with his probe in a dogged manner. If Defence Minister Marapone and Internal Security Minister Amaratunga realise the gravity of the situation there is no doubt that the matter would not be treated in this way. But then certain ministers of this government are proving to be great disappointments in political acumen and administrative efficiency.
The Athurugiriya arsenal affair and consequent publicity provided the LTTE and the world with ample proof of deep penetration squads. It was indeed hilarious to see a bunch of 'toughies' claiming to be covert actionists pleading for clemency by admitting they were covert operatives; probing policemen were being accused of compromising national security. Suddenly the LRRP secret became a public achievement. Kumaratunga was praised for sanctioning such state terrorism. It was portrayed as the single biggest military achievement of the armed forces.
In fact the LTTE was perceived as being prepared to talk peace only because the Tigers feared the LRRP teams. It was indeed pathetic to see knowledgeable persons ignoring the stark reality behind the covert action project and proclaiming it to be a 'legitimate' success. It was like the American public lulling itself into a false consciousness about the Vietnam war through Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris movies. The LTTE however obtained the concurrence of the government in tabooing the deployment of LRRP squads in the north east in the ceasefire accord. The Tigers also got the CFA to stipulate that no Tamil paramilitary group would be allowed to function in the north east with arms. The Tigers thought that with these ceasefire agreement provisions, the deep penetration squad problem would go away. But it did not and the next twist was when the LTTE discovered signs of a plot to place explosives at a point close to where LTTE Leader Pirapaharan was staying. It was this that influenced the LTTE into staging massive security arrangements for the LTTE leader's press conference on April 10.
With the rekindling of suspicion that the deep penetration squads were being activated again, the Tigers began a hard response. Without adequate proof, complaining to the monitoring mission was ruled out. Instead a counter strike was planned. Intelligence Wing Chief, Pottu Amman travelled to the Eastern Province on a special mission to strengthen the intelligence network there. An important aspect of that enterprise was to focus on the activity and support structure of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols. Thereafter, reports are emanating about Tamils involved in the covert action project being targeted, one in Colombo too was shot and wounded. As long as state agencies cover up the covert activity and target the LTTE in more ways than one, retaliatory responses will recur.
What is needed therefore at this juncture is the total dismantling of this covert action project. If LRRP acts continue clandestinely, then the Tigers too are likely to reciprocate. Moreover, the LTTE would eliminate Tamil collaborators as vengeful punishment and also to demolish the LRRP structure. Censuring and compelling the LTTE to desist from such activity can be successful only if the Directorate of Military Intelligence stops its provocative acts. The dogs of war must be called off by both sides.
In order to ensure that the Ranil Wickremesinghe government should know clearly and exactly all the ramifications concerning the LRRP project, it is imperative that the government knows what is happening in order to protect itself. There are many observers who feel that the government has not awoken to the harsh reality behind the Athurugiriya arsenal. It is very necessary that a detailed investigation be launched into the entire covert action project particularly at a time when Kumaratunga and cohorts are planning a prime ministerial 'change.' The deep penetration hit squads need to be probed deeply in the interests of national security and the nation at large.