Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Questions Remain on Massacre in Sri Lanka

MUTUR, Sri Lanka — The victims had been ordered to lie face down, arms outstretched, all in a row in the front yard of a white bungalow. Two lay next to a parked van, interrupted perhaps in a bid to escape.

Most of the dead wore T-shirts bearing the name of the aid group that employed them: the Paris-based Action Contre La Faim, or Action Against Hunger.

The bungalow was their local office, where they had huddled for at least three days last August, waiting to be rescued as soldiers and rebels battled for control of this town.

By the time help arrived, their bodies were decomposing. Photographs show crows standing witness on a plastic patio chair.

The massacre of the 17 was among the worst attacks aimed at aid workers in any conflict anywhere in recent years, approaching the toll in the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003.

But nearly a year after the massacre, the most basic questions about the killings remain unresolved.

Sri Lanka’s government, enmeshed again in a bitter civil war and anxious to keep international human rights monitors out of the country, is facing rising condemnation from groups here and abroad who say the investigation has been wanting because of the possibility that its security forces were involved.

They point to serious gaps, including inconsistencies in ballistics evidence that could implicate Sri Lankan soldiers.

The International Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based human rights group composed of lawyers, released a report in April identifying “a disturbing lack of impartiality, transparency and effectiveness of the investigation.”

Predictably, the rivals in the fighting, the Sinhalese-dominated state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have traded blame for the massacre, one in a pattern of extrajudicial killings that have become a regular feature of the war. Each side says the aid workers were killed when the other party held Mutur; exactly when they were killed, and who was in charge then, is the major mystery.

[In the latest assault on aid workers, the bodies of two Sri Lankan Red Cross Society staff members were found in early June in a suburb of the capital, Colombo. They were picked up for questioning the day before by men who identified themselves as police officers.]

The massacre here occurred at a turning point in the war, as government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels clashed for control of the east. By Aug. 1, the battle had reached Mutur, a small town that was a tricky place.

Located across the bay from Trincomalee, it had long been under government control, but was encircled by rebel-held villages.

Its population was mixed, with Tamils and Muslims living with each other alongside hundreds of largely Sinhalese soldiers.

Trickier still for the aid group was the fact that all its workers were Sri Lankan nationals from Trincomalee, an hour away by ferry, and strangers to the town. And all were Tamil, except one man, a Muslim.

Foreigners can often shield national staff from harassment and suspicion from the warring parties. But that week, with Mutur already girding for trouble, local staff members were sent out alone. Officials from Action Against Hunger said they could not clarify why.

As the Sinhalese military fought to flush out rebel bases nearby, the Tamil Tigers stormed the town, by their account, around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday.

That evening, from besieged Mutur, one of the aid workers, Sivapragasam Romila, 25, called a neighbor in Trincomalee; her own family did not have a phone. Her 18-year-old sister, Noilen, ran next door to answer the call. It was only then that she learned that her sister was even in Mutur.

Romila had gone off to work that morning at the aid group’s office in Trincomalee and later, unknown to her family, had taken the ferry to Mutur, which she visited frequently in her work as a hygiene promoter for the group.

Noilen said she could hear the shelling on the phone, louder than anything she had heard before. “Don’t tell mother, but I’m afraid,” she said Romila had told her.

Noilen waited anxiously for two days for more news. Then Romila called again. She told Noilen that the aid group was trying to get them out. She said they were running out of food.

Their instructions to the Mutur group were unequivocal: remain in the house and wear the agency T-shirts, call in to the Trincomalee radio room every hour. Help would be on the way.

Officials from Action Against Hunger said efforts to retrieve the workers were stymied by soldiers, who blocked the one long road that loops through marsh and jungle from Trincomalee to Mutur. The fighting had prevented the ferry from running.

In interviews, the officials insisted that the decision to instruct their employees to stay put was the right one. They pointed out that a church, where civilians had sought shelter that week, had been shelled, killing more than a dozen people.

“It’s easy to say afterwards they should have left,” Fran├žois Danel, the group’s executive in Paris, said by telephone. “Our decision was for them to stay. It’s in our guidelines.”

By the morning of Friday, Aug. 4, with food and water running out, many of the town’s residents had fled.

At 6:15 a.m. Friday, the aid office in Trincomalee received a final radio call. What was said, including whether the group wanted to leave Mutur with the other civilians, remains unclear. The group said the conversation was not recorded on the radio log, though it would not share its records.

An autopsy did not determine the exact time of death. The Sri Lankan court hearing the case concluded that all 17 were killed early the same morning.

When the security forces reclaimed Mutur is disputed. The rebels contend they cleared out shortly after midnight on Thursday after urging the aid workers to be careful, a contention that is impossible to verify. The military has made contradictory statements about when it took control.

Firzan Hashim, the deputy executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, an umbrella group based in Colombo, reached Mutur on Sunday afternoon. By then, no one was on the narrow road.

The bungalow used by the aid group had been ransacked. A rotten stench filled the air. The aid workers had been shot at such close range, he said, that the bullets had burned muscle as they entered.

The first serious autopsy, last October, showed that nearly all had been shot in the head, two in the neck.

The evidence presented in March to the criminal court indicated that the bullets used were from automatic rifles, 7.62 millimeter, ammunition used by each side in the war.

But that evidence was incomplete. Malcolm J. Dodd, an Australian forensic pathologist invited by the government to observe the autopsy, recorded seeing something else. From Sivapragasam Romila’s skull a “minimally deformed” 5.56 millimeter projectile was retrieved, he wrote in a 64-page report. A 7.62 millimeter bullet was enmeshed in her hair.

The 5.56 millimeter bullet is used in American-made M-16 rifles, carried by some members of Sri Lankan security forces, though such a weapon could just as easily have been stolen by the rebels or someone else. It is a mystery why that evidence was only belatedly revealed to the court.

The government, apparently to deflect calls for an international human rights mission, has appointed a panel to conduct an independent investigation of the massacre and several other prominent human rights crimes.

The inquiry is separate from the criminal case, and it has not satisfied many here or abroad. The Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based advocacy group, said the official commission was no substitute for an international mission.

[In a statement on June 11, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons, a government-appointed panel called in to observe the work of the presidential commission, said the measures taken by the commission “do not satisfy international norms and standards.”]

The uncertainties surrounding the investigations have only compounded the mourning of the victims’ families.

The last time Ganesh Sivaneshwari heard from her daughter, Kavitha, 27, was Thursday night, Aug. 3. Kavitha, also a hygiene promoter, had taken the Tuesday morning ferry to the aid office in Mutur.

Her father, Selaiah Ganesh, 54, a driver for Action Against Hunger, was already there.

It gave Mrs. Ganesh strength that week, knowing that her husband and daughter were together. She trusted her husband’s judgment. He was able and well connected, she said, and he would know how to keep everyone safe or get them out.

What is left of father and daughter are pictures on the family altar. On one afternoon, Mrs. Ganesh sat on the unswept floor and wept.

Her husband’s death has deepened her fear. Only reluctantly does she allow her son Gajan to work, so the family can eat. She has sent another son out of the country.

Without Selaiah Ganesh, they no longer know how to keep safe in the madness of this war.

“If my father were here, I wouldn’t be afraid,” Gajan, 24, said. “I am afraid now.”


Lanka concerned over Chinese-built LTTE arms

A deeply concerned Sri Lankan government is likely to draw China’s attention to a clandestine arms pipeline to the LTTE amidst growing evidence that the group has acquired a sizeable quantity of Chinese manufactured equipment.

The government is expected to seek China’s help to halt vital military supplies to the LTTE. Last week’s capture of an LTTE attack craft about six nautical miles east of the LTTE stronghold at Thalaiady highlighted the Chinese arms link.

The 16-metre vessel believed to be built at an Indonesian boatyard carried an assortment of Chinese manufactured arms including a 14.5 twin barrel anti-aircraft weapon capable of hitting targets at a range of about 2000 metres. This is the first of its kind recovered from the LTTE.

An authoritative government source said that the recovery was the largest single detection of Chinese made arms since Sri Lanka briefed Beijing about LTTE efforts to acquire arms, ammunition and equipment from China early this year.

The SLN seized the vessel after a confrontation Tuesday night off the Thalaiady coast. A Sea Tiger raid on Point Pedro waters triggered a six-hour battle which was repulsed by the SLN with the support of the army.

The army had brought devastating artillery and MBRLs (multi barrel rocket launchers) into play on a Sea Tiger flotilla, initially detected south of Point Pedro. This long range fire had an overwhelming impact on the flotilla before the SLN Fast Attack Craft (FAC) squadrons had swung into action.

Dismissing assertion that the SLN had captured an enemy craft disabled by the artillery fire, the SLN emphasized that there was undeniable evidence that it was first hit by P 412, a Fast Attack Craft (FAC) deployed along with three similar craft.

A 107 mm rocket fired from P 412 had damaged the enemy craft which had also been hit by 30 mm fire. It had capsized and two SLN personnel subsequently jumped into the water to secure a towline enabling the navy to tow the captured vessel to Kankesanthurai on Wednesday morning.

The SLN deployed four squadrons of FACs which ultimately overwhelmed the enemy, naval sources said. The SLN also found evidence that two Chinese built 12.7 mm guns had been mounted on the captured vessel on a previous occasion.

"We found two mounts and ammunition," an official said.

The captured LTTE attack craft (Indumathie) carried three 7.62 mm multi purpose machine guns and one sub machine guns - all of Chinese origin and the corresponding ammunition. The video footage of the battle showed that five enemy craft of similar type (categorized by the Sea Tigers as Wave Rider) were destroyed by FACs during the night battle.

The cutting edge of the SLN is its FAC squadrons primarily operating out of Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai.

The SLN filmed on video 16 craft similar to the one captured and towed to Kankesanthurai. The sources pointed out that all these craft may well have been armed with Chinese weapons.

These craft, just five metres shorter than the SLN’s 21 metre Israeli-built Dvoras, were equipped with Japanese JRC radar and four Japanese-built 250 horsepower outboard motors (OBMs), a US Gamin GPS (Global Positioning System) of Korean make and four communication sets for boat to boat and boat to land communication.

The communication sets are of both Chinese and Japanese makes. Although such communication equipment could have been easily accessed, the Tigers acquiring Japanese radar and powerful OBMs which had been built by Yamaha was of serious concern, highly placed government sources said.

The seizure of the vessel revealed the existence of a vast international LTTE procurement network with unlimited funds, security sources said.

"It was truly an international product," an official said while expressing concern over the absence of what he termed a mechanism to deny terrorist groups access to arms, ammunition and equipment. He estimated that each boat would have cost a sizeable amount.

Early this year the SLN captured an LTTE craft mounted with a single barrel 14.5 mm weapon. During a recent visit to Beijing by UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe Chinese officials said that they thoroughly investigated Sri Lanka’s claim that the LTTE had received Chinese built military hardware.

Wickremesinghe’s was confident that China would never act in a manner detrimental to Sri Lanka’s interests. Government sources said that they do not suspect China of arming the LTTE but the fact that Chinese armaments were seized from the LTTE could not be taken lightly.

"Maybe there’s a third party involvement," an official said.

Since September last year the SLN intercepted and destroyed four LTTE vessels carrying armaments on the deep seas, two of them on a single day.


Sri Lankan troops find polythene sacks with UNHCR emblem covering Tiger bunkers in Thoppigala

Advancing Sri Lankan troops in Thoppigala found polythene sacks with UNHCR emblem in which dry rations to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) contained have been used by the LTTE to cover up their bunkers.

A senior military official said that infantry men supported by Army Engineers during the weekend came across a number of LTTE’s destroyed bunkers, public buildings, vehicles and many other items.

Tigers had also blown up a bridge that connected Karadiyanaru with Thoppigala road and steps are being taken by the Army Engineers to restore the bridge.

Troops also collected a large stock of arms, ammunition and various explosives abandoned by withdrawing Tigers.


LTTE's Tora-Bora base overrun : Thoppigala

SLA infantry and armored corps engaged in the Thoppigala offensive overran LTTE's 'Tora Bora' training base today. LTTE cadres had fled the area before army troops reached base premises thus avoiding any direct confrontations. Tora-Bora was the largest LTTE training base in Eastern province. Thoppigala operation continues with troops marching towards LTTE's Beiruit camp and several other camps in Thravikulam area.

Advance of the troops has slowed down to a crawl due to the hazardous environment set by fleeing tigers. Army engineering corps are tasked with the removal of several thousand landmines and deathtraps ('Maru Wal' in Singhalese) that are placed everywhere in the rough jungle terrain. Although the military claims that it has captured 98% of Thoppigala region, DefenceNet learns that this claim is false. More fierce and more decisive battles in Thoppigala offensive are yet to be fought. However, the army definitely holds the advantage of these battles with its elite units leading the charge and most of LTTE's supply routes cut off. [Video footage of the offensive can be found here. (Source: ]

Meanwhile SLAF fighter jets flew more than 4 sorties during the day, after a long silence. Sea tigers base complex in Silawathurei, LTTE bases in Thoppigala and identified targets west of Omanthai and Vavuniya were bombed using Jet bombers in the 10th fighter squadron. Damages caused by airstrikes are unknown at the moment.


2 Commando Regiment approaches Beiruit camp : Thoppigala

Sri Lanka army's commando units engaged in the Thoppigala offensive braved their way through rocky terrain, land mines, death traps and rough weather to reach the boundaries of LTTE's Beiruit camp. Beiruit complex is the last LTTE stronghold in the eastern province. 2nd Commando Regiment commanded by Major Uditha Bandara, is now laying the siege to Beiruit complex. 6th, 7th and 8th Gemunu regiments have also entered the battlefield to provide fire support in what is expected to be a fierce final battle.

Offensive to capture Thoppigala started when Army's Special Forces units penetrated LTTE defense lines on February 24th. Although the offensive met almost no LTTE resistance in early days, it has now come under heavy LTTE counterattacks. LTTE offered fierce resistance when troops attempted to capture the final LTTE defense line (near Narakamulla east) on the 19th. The FDL was fortified with 6 bunkers and 3 minor camps. Even after a heavy barrage of artillery and tank fire at the FDL, LTTE had not vacated their positions. The LTTE was taken by surprise by army's next move. Nearly 50 soldiers of the Commando regiment stormed into LTTE bunkers and opened fire on defending terrorists. In a few seconds, the entire situation of the battle changed. LTTE cadres who initially had the upper hand of the battle were now trapped inside their own bunker line. This devastating commando raid left 30 tigers dead. 3 tiger cadres had committed suicide during the battle. In contrast to heavy LTTE casualties, only 4 commando units received injuries.

Initially, a tank offensive was planned to capture remaining tiger territory. This was called off later to avoid damages as LTTE used their MBRLs to fire at incoming troops. LTTE have used 2 6-barreled MBRLs, 4 120mm Mortars and numerous 81mm mortars as heavy weapons during the offensive.


LTTE advance halted: Vavuniya

nitial wave of a fresh LTTE advance on army's forward defense lines west of Omanthai was neutralized by SLA Special Forces units yesterday. Initially, 2 LTTE cadres who were trying to infiltrate into the army controlled area (probably for artillery spotting) were shot dead by the security forces who were manning the FDLs. LTTE's main advancing body disintegrated when small groups of Special Forces units carried out a pre emptive strike to halt the advance. 13 LTTE cadres are known to have perished in battle.

Small groups of Special Forces units ventured into the 'no man's land' between army and LTTE FDLs west of Omanthai to repel the LTTE advance before it could reach the army's frontline positions.

Special Forces are now been deployed in the Vavuniya - Omanthai region where heavy fighting has taken place in the past month. SLA lost approximately 6 square kilometers of territory to LTTE when they launched a three pronged offensive few weeks earlier to recapture areas lost to army offensives.


LTTE suffers casualties in sea battle

LTTE's sea going arm suffered heavy casualties when one of it's clandestine boat movements was intercepted by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), yesterday. SLN gunboats deployed in the northern waters detected a group of approximately 20 sea tiger boats moving towards Point Pedro from Kadaikadu.

Upon detection, Fast Attack Craft (FAC) of the Navy engaged the sea tiger boat movement. The fierce firefight which then erupted lasted for hours. In the initial battle, Navy's gunboats destroyed 3 LTTE craft completely. As soon as these boats were hit, rest of the sea tiger boats began withdrawing towards tiger controlled territory in Kadaikadu. SLAF's Mi-24 helicopter gunships attacked the fleeing tigers and SLA's artillery bases bombarded the seas off Munai (where the rebel craft were lingering for a while) using Multi Barrel Rockets and 152mm/130mm artillery guns.

A total of 5 LTTE craft were sunk and a further 9 are confirmed to be seriously damaged. One of the disabled LTTE boats in better condition is now being towed to the Point Pedro harbor by SLN. Nearly 40 LTTE cadres are believed to be killed in this 4 hour long sea battle.