Monday, May 21, 2007

Tigers suffer setback at sea, but land war drags on by Our Defence Correspondent

As the LTTE this week suffered yet another defeat, this time at the hands of the tiny navy of the Maldives, the ground war in the Northeast continued to drag on with no end in sight.

Over the last two months, the nation has been captivated by the spectacle of the LTTE Air Wing engaging in daring bombing raids and getting away scot-free. But while everyone's attention has been diverted by the hysterical response to a few bombs being dropped on Colombo with little effect, what has largely escaped notice is that there has been little progress towards bringing the war to a rapid close.

More than a year after full-scale operations began, the Tigers remain secure in their Northern lair, while the armed forces continue to fool themselves into believing that the capture of parts of the East have been crippling blows to the LTTE, which it is not.

The fact is that the longer the Army allows the Tigers, the stronger the LTTE will become, rearming itself and recruiting to recover from losses it has suffered.

Thursday's sinking of the Indian trawler Sri Krishna in the Maldives was the end of a two-month saga surrounding the vessel. Registered in Tuticorin, it had set off from Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India on March 7 and been hijacked by the Sea Tigers along with several other Indian fishing vessels. The Indian Coast Guard recovered some of the vessels, but the Sri Krishna disappeared.

The Tigers had reportedly taken its 12-member crew to the Wanni where they are still believed to be held captive. Only one crew member was kept on board due to his knowledge of the ship's engines.

The 75-foot vessel had then taken on a stock of ammunition, believed to be from another ship west of the Maldives, and was proceeding towards Sri Lanka when it was sighted by a Maldivian fishing boat MV Tuna whose crew challenged the Sri Krishna believing it was manned by Sri Lankan fishermen poaching in their country's waters.

The Tiger cadres had fired at the MV Tuna, which had fled back to the port of Vilingili in the Maldives and reported the incident. The Maldivian Defence Force gunboat 'Hurayee' had then set off in pursuit and intercepted the Sri Krishna several hours later.

Near Gaaf Alif Atoll, the Hurayee had ordered the Sri Krishna to halt, only to receive gunfire from small arms as a response. At the time, the last Indian crew member had taken his chance and jumped into the water, to be rescued by the gunboat.

The Hurayee had then fired on the Sri Krishna with all its guns and set it ablaze. Four LTTE cadres had jumped overboard and were captured. The Sri Krishna sank soon afterwards. The suspects are now in Male and face charges of piracy which will doubtless bring them long prison terms under Maldivian and Indian laws.

While isolated incidents like this week's sinking of a gun-running ship by the Maldives Defence Force are setbacks to the LTTE, this does not mean that many more arms shipments are not getting through

Indeed, the LTTE's use of smaller ships such as the one that was destroyed on Wednesday clearly shows that the Tigers are bring in shipments in many smaller vessels, instead of risking having large shipments detected and destroyed.

The Army's reluctance to take on the Tigers in their den in the Wanni have proved what this column declared several months ago: That the misadventures in the Eastern Province will leave the Army's resources stretched so far that it will lack the manpower and the confidence to boldly go on the offensive in the North.

Instead, the Army continues to launch small 'limited operations' that last at most a day or two, and succeed only in killing a handful of Tigers.

On March 11 this column was headlined: 'Is the Army getting bogged down in the East?'

We said at the time: 'More than nine months after the armed forces began their Eelam War IV campaign in response to LTTE aggression, the Army remains mired in operations in the Eastern Province, and has been unable to spare the resources for a major offensive in the North.

'The continued operations in the Batticaloa District have dampened hopes for a rapid move to take on the Tigers in the North and achieve a major victory in order to push Tiger Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran back to the negotiating table. Any hopes for a rapid end to Eelam War IV have now vanished, and the country is clearly in for a long hard war.

'One of the main problems facing the armed forces is the over-reaction of the government and the top brass to minor attacks in the Batticaloa District, which has given more strength to the determination to rid the entire East of the Tigers before launching major operations in the North.

'However, this is playing straight into the Tigers' hands, and the forces need to focus on the LTTE's current strategy and come up with a proper plan that will undermine the Tigers. The Tigers are at present battling for time, in order to recruit more cadres and bring in more ammunition by sea.

'But what does matter in the long run is that the forces are committing large resources towards these operations, and the top brass is reluctant to take on major operations in the North while at the same time having such Eastern operations going on. Operations such as Marvil Aru, Sampur, Vakarai, and Muhamalai did in fact take a heavy toll on manpower.

'As this column has repeatedly pointed out, the LTTE can only be decisively defeated in the North. The East has always been a sideshow. Even clearing every single LTTE cadre from the East would not serve to bring the Tigers back to peace talks. Only by achieving at least one major victory on the ground in the North, can the forces bring the Tigers back to the table. The sooner that is achieved, the faster Eelam War IV will be brought to a successful close.

Two months down the road, the Northeast battlefield remains almost exactly the same as it was when we warned about the problem.

We have repeatedly warned that the war is going towards a stalemate due to the Army's wrong strategy. As far back as November 25 of last year this column was headlined 'Government being fed the wrong strategy'. We warned then that:

'The unimaginative and lackluster strategies adopted by the armed forces in Eelam War IV,.... continue.

'Troops once again conducted small scale operations this week in the Eastern Province, which resulted in some desultory skirmishes .... But nothing was achieved in strategic terms to give either the armed forces an advantage on the ground or the government an advantage in dealing with the Tigers. Meanwhile operations in the Northern Province have been dismal.

'What the President and his advisors must understand is that the Jaffna Peninsula and the Eastern Province are battlefields that have been chosen by Prabhakaran, and not by the Army. To continue fighting only in these areas does not put pressure on the LTTE. An LTTE defeat in these areas is of little consequence to the Tiger leadership, who are sitting in the Wanni. Colombo, where thousands of troops are deployed to protect against infiltration attacks, is also a battlefield that was chosen by Prabhakaran.

'The only way to bring direct pressure on the Tiger leadership is to attack the Wanni. This will also serve to immediately ease the pressure on government areas in Jaffna and the East, as the LTTE will immediately withdraw almost all cadres to defend the Tiger strongholds. The Wanni also offers the Army the chance to choose its target and achieve the element of surprise and seize the initiative. For example, an attack could be launched from Mannar, or Vavuniya, or at Madhu, or Weli Oya, or Pooneryn, or even by sea at Mullaittivu.

The nation has so far been fortunate. The offensives the LTTE has launched in the past year have been largely unsuccessful. Even the air raid on Colombo, Katunayake and Palali achieved little in material terms for the Tigers except to temporarily regain some lost prestige. But while the Army dawdles, the LTTE will be doing its utmost to inflict a serious defeat on government forces, either in the Northeast, or somewhere else in the country. The current 'Phoney War' cannot go on forever.