Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Vakarai: On the trail of another victory

Maps and unused ammunition of the Tiger guerillas are strewn in and around the one time base used by Trincomalee district leader Swarnam who was moved into Vakarai in Batticaloa, in the wake of the government’s latest military offensive in the eastern province.

All indications are that the base had been vacated hastily.

The one time base, now in the hands of the security forces, fortified not only with coconut tree trunks and concrete, but also with bags of rice which had been sent for the displaced persons in the area, was shown to a group of journalists flown in on Wednesday by the military.
One of the 152 mm artillery guns

A location which has a natural formation of rocks has been picked for the base assuming that it would not be detected by the security forces, but with accurate information Sri Lanka Air force Kafir jets had taken on the target with precision.

During a 10 week long operation, security forces now control the Batticaloa – Trincomalee A 15 road and have effectively prevented the guerrillas making use of the Vakarai sea front which they used to smuggle weapons from the north as well as for the movement of their cadres.

The government is now set to press on the advances gained by the military and will shortly allow thousands of civilians who fled the Vakarai area to return to their homes. The process of screening the displaced before they return has already started.

“Ours was an entirely humanitarian operation to clear the area of terrorists. We have achieved our target and the government will soon start getting civilians back to their homes,” Eastern province military commander Major General Parakrama Pannipitiya told journalists.
Mines left behind by fleeing Tigers

The threats posed to the Somapura and Mahindapura areas among other villages which came under artillery attack no longer exists as the areas used for the attacks now remain under the control of the security forces. Besides the capture of the area, two of the 152 mm artillery guns immobilized and left behind by the LTTE have also been detected along with other weapons and ammunition.

One of the immediate tasks of the security forces would be the clearing operations as dozens of weapons and anti-personnel mines have been left behind by retreating LTTE cadres.

“Our fears are that some of the terrorist posing off as civilians may enter the area and dig out the weapons and try to carryout attacks on the security forces disrupting civilian life and plans of resettlement. Therefore, we need to make sure the place is clear of weapons”, one of the officers explained.

Only some 20 per cent of the area liberated has been cleared so far.
Medicine stocks at Vakarai Hospital

As security forces continue their search operations, more items kept by the LTTE to prevent the entry of the security forces into the area were detected. Among them were a suicide boat containing 17 claymore mines which could be detonated by the use of a central switch and T 56 weapons greased and buried underground.Before the LTTE withdrew into the jungles more than 100 motorcycles, tractors and double cabs were set ablaze. Some of them, brand new vehicles that had been provided to government projects operating in the area.

Water tanks, roofing sheets and tents were among the dozens of items provided by International Non governmental, organisations, found in camps of the LTTE.

The military acknowledges that the INGOs have been able to provide services to the public living in the areas, but expresses fears that the relief provided by them could be misused by the LTTE for military activities as in the case seen in Vakarai.

“We are aware that the INGOs are doing a service to the people. But there should be some mechanism to prevent the items being misused by the LTTE,” military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe accompanying journalists on the visit said.
Burnt motorbikes. Pix by Alexander Balasuriya and A. T.M. Gunananda

In the wake of the misuse of the INGO-provided-relief items the government is planning to draw a new mechanism for INGOs operating in the LTTE controlled areas while INGOs say they are helpless over the misuse of the property as the items have been provided for the residents in the area, but eventually misused by the LTTE.

The main building of the Vakarai hospital, which the LTTE claims had been hit by air strikes remains intact with some of the medicines still remaining in the store rooms.

Opposite the hospital less than 25 metres away the LTTE had been operating its administrative office while almost immediately behind the hospital the LTTE had located one of its camps. The area had been used to fire mortars in an attempt to draw retaliatory attacks from the security forces who were forced to maintain restraint.

Meanwhile some estimated 5,000 civilians had camped around the hospital in small tents with some of them having their own underground bunkers. As the army captured the Vakarai hospital area some of the civilians who were still there were safely evacuated by the army by land and sea .

The hospital was the centre of operations until the army arrived there. Loudspeakers tied on trees was an indication that all communication to the people was made from this point. A lone doctor managed to cope with dozens of patients most of them elderly people and women.

“Some had not eaten for days. They were not given food despite the availability of food,”says one of the officers involved in the operation to recapture the area.

The international community argued that more food should have been sent to the area, but the army points out that food stocks were available but the LTTE was taking away the supplies and storing the items in the camps.

With the capture of the Vakarai and Kathiraveli areas enabling the army to open the A 15 road, the security forces were set to clear more areas including the Thoppigala jungles in the Batticaloa district and reduce the presence of the LTTE in the area. “We will take advantage of the areas captured and go on to clear other areas where Tigers have infiltrated,” says Major General Pannipitiya.