Monthly Archives: April 2006
It was his brother and Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa who broke the bad news to the President. He said over the telephone, in a voice choked with emotion that Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka has been attacked by a suicide bomber at his own headquarters. It was around 1.45 p.m. on Tuesday April 25.
The mood at Temple Trees changed. A grim faced President Mahinda Rajapaksa began receiving a stream of visitors. First to arrive were the two brothers, Basil and Gothabaya. Among those who followed were Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, Deputy Minister Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi and Jathika Hela Urumaya`s Champaka Ranawaka. Moments later, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who had first rushed to Colombo`s National Hospital where Lt. Gen. Fonseka was taken for emergency surgery also turned up. They were all gathering in the upstairs lounge.
`I gave him a bullet proof car and warned him to be careful on a number of occasions,` lamented Rajapaksa. He was aware Lt. Gen. Fonseka was a very high profile target and had released a bullet proof BMW car from the Presidential fleet. These vehicles were imported when former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was in office. The new President opted to distribute them to those who needed these vehicles most. The Army Chief was one of them. Brother Gothabaya intervened to say the Commander used that bullet proof vehicle only when he moved around outside Army Headquarters. For travel within the precincts of the Army Headquarters, he was using a more fuel efficient Peugeot 406.
Soon, the military top brass began to arrive. There were Chief of Defence Staff, the controversial Admiral Daya Sandagiri, Army Chief of Staff Major General Nanda Mallawaratchchi, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and Air Force Commander Air Marshal Donald Perera. When they walked upstairs, the politicians realised it was time now for them to walk down. A crisis session of the defence and security top brass began. Views expressed reflected shock, anger and revulsion.
If the Government had grinned and borne the sporadic claymore bomb blasts that took a toll of more than 150 troops since President Rajapaksa was voted to power, here was a more shocking one. A female suicide bomber had not only infiltrated the heavily-fortified Army Headquarters but also badly injured the Commander. There was no doubt in their minds that this was the work of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). That it came on the eve of the Government wanting to talk peace with them in Geneva exacerbated the anger. In fact, the attack came when the LTTE was meant to be in Geneva for peace talks.
There was a knotty issue that confronted the Government`s top brass. Can the defence and security establishment keep silent in the wake of Tuesday`s attack’ Would such stoic silence make Sri Lankans believe the Government was weak, and demoralise its troops’ Would the public conclude that even after infiltrating the Army Headquarters and making an attempt on the life of Lt. Gen. Fonseka, the Government was succumbing to terrorist acts and not asserting its right to govern’ What was the acceptable level of tolerance’ These were just a few of the many questions they sought to find answers to.
It was strongly felt that a limited strike on a guerrilla target was necessary to send the message the Government was not going to remain quiet in the wake of mounting terrorist acts. Its commitment to the Ceasefire Agreement was one thing. An overriding factor and a more important aspect was the exercise of the Government`s sovereignty to demonstrate its ability to respond to major acts of terrorism. It was decided to strike at guerrilla targets in Sampur, overlooking the strategic harbour in Trincomalee and adjoining Mutur. The Air Force would conduct aerial sorties whilst the Army would fire artillery. On the opposite page our Defence Correspondent gives a detailed account of the events of Tuesday.
By then, President Rajapaksa had already recorded his address to the Nation over Rupavahini, the national television network. He was to explain the Government`s position vis-à-vis the second round of talks with the LTTE in Geneva scheduled for three days beginning April 18. He was to tell the nation that despite all the Government`s efforts, the LTTE had not shown a positive response. He ordered that the recording be recalled and a fresh one done. In that he pointedly accused the LTTE of carrying out the suicide attack and added they had unilaterally broken all efforts towards peace. `No type of terrorism will frighten me. I and my Government will not be brought to our knees by whatever challenge that we face,` Rajapaksa declared.
But his message at a critical moment of the nation`s history did not reach some parts of Sri Lanka, or the world. It was not due to enemy action. His army of media experts, considered avowed political loyalists, had thought it fit to distribute the text only the next day. This was how best they could treat the issue. And all this, while some western media, especially the BBC, was on a trip about the casualties and displacement because of the aerial bombings at Sampur.
That same Tuesday evening, Rajapaksa chaired a poorly attended emergency Cabinet meeting. One would have thought that the 40 something Cabinet would have been over-flowing, but most Ministers had not turned up. It seemed that the incident at Army Headquarters had made them think twice about travelling on the road. He told those present that he had remained very tolerant with the LTTE despite their orgy of violence. Now they have brought the war to Army Headquarters. He had ordered strikes on guerrilla targets, he told them. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera cautioned that it would have a snowballing effect since there would be counter attacks. However, the Minister added that the Government would have to face all of them.
But late that same day Samaraweera had received an urgent telephone call from his British counterpart. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had inquired about the Air Force bombings and expressed his Government`s concerns over civilian casualties. That call came so fast from London that some of the Israeli-built Kfir intercepter jets had not even returned to base at Katunayake after their mission. He knew of civilian casualties even before the sorties had returned. But the irony of it was that our own Foreign Minister seated in Colombo did not know about the bombing raids, and promised to get back to Straw with the details. It was only at the evening`s Cabinet meeting that Samaraweera in Colombo knew what Straw in London was privy to.
A Foreign Office wag was to say that Samaraweera was stuck for a reply, not so much because of the fact that he did not know what was happening in his own backyard in Sampur, but that he was confused if Straw had got his wires-crossed and thought he was speaking to one of his air commanders in Iraq.
Had Straw at lease mentioned the blatant act of terrorism at Army Headquarters that nearly took the life of the Commander, Samaraweera might have known he was talking of the situation in Sri Lanka.
The Foreign Minister was not alone in being in the dark about the Sampur bombings. A foreign correspondent had telephoned Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa that Tuesday afternoon to ask for his response on aerial raids by the Air Force. He was unaware too.
`What bombings’` seemed to be the general response from Government heads, including the many spokesmen on the subject on war and peace. After Minister Yapa made inquiries, the Information Department put out a news release. It said:
`Following the suicide bomb attack on the Army Commander this afternoon, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) positioned in the Sampur area launched an attack on the Navy in Trincomalee. The security forces have carried out an operation to deter further attacks by the LTTE.`
The Government`s media responses to Tuesday`s incident at Army Headquarters seemed a muddled up circus than a focused one. Many who were `spokesmen` spoke in different voices on the day of the incident and the days that followed. The contradictions no doubt created serious questions for Government`s credibility. One was the remarks by Military Spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe to the Reuters news agency that claymore mine blasts would not provoke air attacks. Senior military officers were irked that the remarks were offensive to ground troops who were made to feel that attacks on them were a different matter. Ironic enough, they wanted their own spokesman to say less and save them greater heartburn. Officials at the Ministry of Defence expressed the same sentiment.
They asked whether it was not the prerogative of the Defence Secretary or the Ministry of Defence to make such comments, or have one Government spokesman. Another sad saga came after President Rajapaksa had appealed to Editors and News Directors of electronic media to act with restraint. He said there was a need to report on sensitive issues with care to ensure there was no communal backlash. But even before those who took part in the meeting could reach their offices, something shocking had arrived.
The Information Department had distributed via computer gory pictures of Sinhala civilians massacred in Gomarankadawala in the Trincomalee district. Of course those who see the lighter side of every situation remarked that this must be the Government`s way of providing dis-information, and thereby confusing the enemy. Either way, those acting as spokesmen for the Government were shooting themselves in the foot in the propaganda war against Tiger guerrillas. Ironically, nothing seems to have been done to cure this malady that has lasted through successive governments, from the inception of the Eelam struggle. Though there was more international support and acknowledgement now than before for the Government, it is still unable to get its message across in a crisis situation.
Hard on the heels of the poorly-attended Cabinet meeting, President Rajapaksa had a meeting with party leaders. Though a delegation from the opposition United National Party was invited to take part in this meeting at 6 p.m, acting leader Karu Jayasuriya had preferred a separate bi-lateral meeting with a delegation from his party. They were told to come at 8 p.m.
Among those taking part in the party leaders meeting were Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Dinesh Gunawardena, Susil Premajayantha, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna`s (JVP) Tilvin Silva, Wimal Weerawansa, Anura Dissanayake, Jathika Hela Urumaya`s (JHU) Ven. Athureliye Rathana, Eelam People`s Democratic Party leader Douglas Devananda, Ceylon Workers Congress leader Arumugam Thondaman and National Unity Alliance leader Ferial Ashraff.
Rajapaksa told party leaders he was not bent on going to war. He said they (the LTTE) brought the war to Army Headquarters and a limited response therefore became necessary. He wanted the parties that were supportive of the Government to appreciate the situation and extend their support. JVP`s Tilvin Silva was the first to respond. He said President Rajapaksa would have the fullest backing of the JVP. Ven. Athureliya Rathana expressed similar sentiments and pointed out what he thought were security lapses in the City of Colombo.
Around 8 p.m. that Tuesday night a UNP delegation arrived at Temple Trees for their meeting with Rajapaksa. Earlier, acting leader Karu Jayasuriya had telephoned UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in the United States to brief him and obtain clearance. The latter had told him to go ahead. Accompanying Jayasuriya were Tissa Attanayake, Milinda Moragoda and Jayalath Jayawardena.
Jayasuriya said that the UNP`s unstinted support was on offer for the Government to curb violence. But, he pointed out, equally firmly, that members of the UPFA were overtly critical of the UNP and were making all forms of accusations. He made pointed reference to a talk show where Sripathi Sooriya-ratchchi had blamed the UNP for signing the Ceasefire Agreement and the prevailing situation. This was quoting newspaper reports. In the show in question, Sooriyaratchchi had made references to The Sunday Times too. President Rajapaksa pointed out `the media do not behave the way I want them to`, and ducked the issue.
Moragoda who was referring to Tuesday`s incident at Army Headquarters urged Rajapaksa to seek the help of the United States Government — the panacea for all ills, according to the Moragoda doctrine. This was to obtain the help of American investigators to probe the incident and identify how it occurred. The President nodded his head in a way one was not sure if it meant `yes`, or `no`.
After the meeting ended, President Rajapaksa found there were more visitors to Temple Trees. Sripathi Sooriya-ratchchi was in the company of Ministers John Seneviratne and Pavithra Wannia-ratchchi. `What you said on the talk show has hit them (the UNP) badly,` said Rajapaksa. He said Sooriyaratchchi should not be too harsh on them since they were now supporting the Government`s acti-ons against violence by Tiger guerrillas. The Deputy Minister replied `if you say so, I will not.`
It was nearing midnight but Rajapaksa`s tasks were not over. He drove thereafter to the National Hospital where emergency surgery had just been concluded on Lt. Gen. Fonseka. He egged on the medical staff `I would like you all to ensure a quick recovery for him.`
The next day (Wednesday) Foreign Minister Samaraweera addressed heads of the Colombo based diplomatic community. Some raised issue over the Sampur air raids and the fate of internally displaced persons. This time Samaraweera was prepared. An official announcement from the Government said the population in Sampur was 16,500 and only a fraction had been affected. But a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statement declared there were 7000 to 8000 persons displaced. Samara-weera said the air raids were only a limited response to the suicide attack on the Army Commander.
Soon after that meeting, Samara-weera met Jon Hanssen Baur, Norway`s Special envoy for the peace process and their Ambassador in Sri Lanka Hans Brattskar. He urged them to pressurise the LTTE to return to Geneva. Even before Tuesday`s incident, he said, the Government had offered the LTTE the use of a sea plane (owned by SriLankan Airlines) and even agreed to meet the costs. However, there were still problems including the issue of where such a plane should land with LTTE`s eastern leaders. Whilst the LTTE favoured the Iranamadu irrigation tank, the Government preferred a lake near Wanni located in a Government-controlled area.
Later that day, President Rajapaksa met with envoys of the donor co-chair countries individually. He explained that the air raids were a limited response and gave the reasons why it became necessary. All envoys condemned the suicide bomber attack at Army Headquarters.
Another visitor was Indian High Commissioner Nirupama Rao. She was to politely convey her Government`s concerns over the air raids. She said such action would lead to the influx of refugees to South India. With local elections in Tamil Nadu due next week, such a move would become damaging to the ruling Congress Party Government in New Delhi. President Rajapaksa said it was only a limited offensive and it was now over. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also telephoned President Rajapaksa to inquire about the prevailing situation. He reiterated his commitment to help the Government in protecting Sri Lanka`s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Rajapaksa sought Premier Singh`s assistance to urge the Indian Navy to curb attempts by LTTE to smuggle military hardware through high seas into Sri Lanka. The Indian prime Minister assured this would be done.
There was a fuller turnout of Cabinet ministers for Wednesday`s weekly meeting. Rajapaksa took the opportunity to explain matters relating to the air strike, in greater detail. There was also a meeting of the National Security Council where it was decided to ban May Day rallies in the Colombo district on grounds of security.
President Raja-paksa had a meeting with a JVP delegation the same day. Taking part were Tilvin Silva, Wimal Weerawansa and Anura Dissanayake. Associated with the President were Dulles Allahaperuma MP, and presidential secretary Lalith Weeratunga. The outlines of a resolution at Friday`s all-party conference over peace talks and the need to curb violence were discussed.
The resolution came up at the all-party talks on Friday. Though the UNP delegation was at first reluctant to sign without winning the approval of the party, but later with a series of amendments, the joint resolution was unanimously adopted.
An equally important decision was made at the meeting of donor co-chairs in Oslo on Friday. A statement said the Co-chairs reiterated their deep concern at the recent deterioration of the situation in Sri Lanka, condemning all acts of violence and calling on this to stop.
Though the meeting gave rise to widespread speculation that talks were due to resume soon, the reality was sadly different. True enough, both the Government and the LTTE have committed themselves throughout this week to uphold the ceasefire.
There is strong evidence the LTTE is busy making preparations for a major attack. This has prompted the Government to ensure greater military preparedness. With fears of a return to Eelam War IV ominous, many may wish a Geneva meeting is round the corner. The immediate prospects are clearly dim. This is notwithstanding all the soothsaying going on about talks in Geneva.-The Sunday Times
No word yet on suicide bombing
Ruling the government’s air strikes on Sampoor as a clear violation of the cease-fire agreement, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission yesterday also censured the LTTE for placing military or political targets among civilian populations close to schools and private houses.
The verdict came close on the heels of the air strikes which took place on 25 and 26 April 2006. However, the SLMM is yet to deliver a determination on Tuesday’s suicide bombing in Colombo which left 11 dead and 26 injured. Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, who was the target of the attack, is in stable condition but remains in the intensive care unit of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka.
"He is stable but the team of consultants treating the commander are of the opinion that he should stay in the ICU a little longer," said Dr Hector Weerasinghe, NHSL director.
Asked whether the SLMM had ruled on the suicide attack, spokesperson Helen Olafsdottir said, "Not yet". She said the mission wanted to get further information from the government about the woman who blew herself up inside the army headquarters.
"Now that the government knows the identity of the woman it will not be difficult to determine her links," she elaborated. "Once her links are established and we know who she is, we will be able to deliver a ruling. It (a determination) should come."
Yesterday’s SLMM statement on the government air strikes came a day after Head of Mission Ulf Henricsson met Palitha Kohona, director general of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process. According to a SCOPP press release, Hernicsson told Kohona that: "Sri Lanka Air Force and Navy had definitely targeted military positions and offices of the LTTE".
The SCOPP statement also quoted Henricsson as saying that some collateral damage to property had taken place as some of the LTTE offices were situated in populated areas. "Such collateral damage was not significant," it said, attributing the comments to Herincsson. "In his estimation, approximately 10-12 people may have died. He did not believe that 16 people had died as has been claimed in some reports."
On being asked about accounts relating to a mass exodus of people from Sampoor, Henricsson reportedly said, "these were grossly exaggerated".
Asked whether details of the discussion were released on agreement with SLMM, Kohona told the Sunday Island that he had asked the monitors several times whether they had any objection to him making the information public. "They assured us that there was no problem," he said. Olafsdottir commented that the SCOPP statement was "more or less accurate but did not contain the whole story".
Yesterday’s SLMM ruling said: "The air strikes that were conducted by the Sri Lankan Government in Trincomalee district on Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) targets in Sampoor area on 25 and 26 April 2006 are a clear violation of the Ceasefire Agreement."
It pointed out that article 1.2 of the Ceasefire Agreement clearly prohibits either party from engaging in offensive military operation. The government has claimed the strikes were defensive and that they were effected as "a deterrent to neutralise the threat posed by the LTTE to the harbour and key naval installations in Trincomalee".
"The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission would like to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to refrain from such operations as they can jeopardise the Ceasefire further and will only add fuel to the conflict," the SLMM states.
With regards to the LTTE the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission would like to stress that it is inexcusable to place military or political targets amongst the civilian population close to schools and private houses.
Although the situation has calmed down in the last couple of days it is still worrying to see that claymore mine attacks and killings of civilians and army personnel continue. The LTTE must seize all their military activities and attacks on Government forces.
We also fear that Government Security forces have, in the North and the East, been involved in extrajudicial killings of civilians. This conviction is based on our observation and inquiries on the ground.
"This violence must stop immediately if the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE are to make any progress in returning to the negotiation table."
It is the first time a SLMM statement has made reference to extra-judicial killings of civilians by government security forces. Kohona said the government was considering how to respond to the allegation.
Another senior official closely connected with the peace process asserted: "We are wondering how this conclusion was drawn by SLMM at the present moment’85 when the commander of the army was blasted inside the army headquarters and a string of claymore mines has left many dead. We are uncertain about what evidence SLMM has gathered to introduce a statement on extra-judicial killings by government security forces." -Island- by Namini Wijedasa
The assassination attempt to Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka by a LTTE suicide bomber has proved again the inhumanness, cruelty and complete disregard for accepted norms of behaviour by the LTTE. This attempt is not an attempt against the government, but the entire Sri Lankan state and should be condemned by all parties and the people who are committed to democracy and human rights and those who are trying for a negotiated political solution, Navin Dissanayake, MP, said.
"Being a son of a United National Party leader, who has also been assassinated by the LTTE, I would like to stress at this point that while the UNP has borne the brunt of LTTE suicide attacks as far as a political party is concerned, it is time that all peace-loving citizens of this country unite to overcome and defeat the dark forces of terrorism and separation that are trying to darken our motherland," he said in a statement.
"It is a known strategy of the LTTE to divide various races living in Sri Lanka by these cruel acts. We must all be mindful of what the LTTE is trying to do. It is up to all peace-loving citizens of Sri Lanka regardless of what political party they belong to, protect the sovereignty of this country. We should never be provoked by the LTTE terrorism. At this crucial juncture in the nation’s history regardless of petty political differences we must support President Mahinda Rajapakse for him to face this problem with all the courage and strength that is required." -Island
Times of India Editorial:
THE heinous attack on Sri Lankan Army chief Sarath Fonseka at a hospital in Colombo has pushed the nation to the brink of war. Goverment has already launched air strikes on ‘selected targets’ in uncleared areas as a retaliatory measure.
Despite President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s announcement that the ceasefire agreement of 2002 will hold, there is concern that the tenuous peace process between Goverment and LTTE is under threat.
The suicide attack on Tuesday appears to be the handiwork of LTTE, even though the terror group has denied any involvement. LTTE has a history of engaging in brinkmanship.
In all probability, the attack on Fonseka was intended to provoke the Goverment ahead of the peace talks in Geneva. Any act of violence on the part of Sri Lankan armed forces, even if it is retaliatory, will be used by LTTE to drum up support in circles sympathetic to the Tamil cause.
Goverment should not walk into the trap. The impasse in the talks is largely due to LTTE’s refusal to engage constructively with the peace process.
It is high time they realise that the best option for Tamils is a federal Sri Lanka that can protect the political and cultural concerns of various minorities.
Civil society should also lend a helping hand if the wounds of the violent decades are to heal and a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka is to survive.
There is a paucity of leadership within the Tamil community in Sri Lanka that can challenge the consensus manufactured by LTTE. This leadership drought is a fallout of LTTE’s politics to destroy views and opinion that are at variance with those held by Prabhakaran.
Over the years, politicians and academics who resisted LTTE’s hegemony have been killed. In an atmosphere of fear and terror, it is unlikely that correctives to LTTE’s absolutist position on a Tamil homeland will emerge from within the community.
However, there are sections among the political class in Tamil Nadu which can engage with LTTE. Leaders like Karunanidhi and Vaiko have been vocal about their sympathies for the plight of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.
They should impress upon LTTE leadership the need to be realistic and conciliatory about its goals. They should follow the example of CPM leader Sitaram Yechury who used his good offices with Nepal’s Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance to work for peace.
COLOMBO: The Head of Mission of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) Major General Ulf Henricsson confirmed that the Sri Lanka Air Force and Navy had definitely targeted military positions and offices of the LTTE, when he met Dr. Palitha Kohona, Secretary General of the Secretarial for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) at his office yesterday.
Major General Henricsson offered his observations following his trip to Trincomalee and Sampur on April 27.
He also added that the report relating to a mass exodus of people from the Sampur area were grossly exaggerated.
He had the opportunity to make first hand observations on the ground following the limited military operation launched by the security forces on April 25-26 against identified LTTE targets in the Sampur area, which had now come to an end.
He observed that some collateral damage to property had taken place as some of the LTTE offices were situated in populated areas. Such collateral damage was not significant.
In his estimation approximately 10-12 people may have died. He did not believe that 16 people had died as has been claimed in some reports.
On being asked about the reports relating to a mass exodus of people from the Sampur area, he stated that these were grossly exaggerated. It is normal for people to move away from military targets at times of conflict.
Since the bombing ceased, people were slowly returning to their homes and villages. Secretary General, SCOPP assured that the Government will take all measures to facilitate the return and rehabilitation of people who had left their homes.
He referred to the Essential Services Task Force headed by the Governor of the North and the East, established by the Government to facilitate the delivery of essential services to residents of this area.
These observations of the Head of Mission of SLMM clearly support the fact that the security forces had been careful about avoiding civilian casualties.
The government security forces had not launched attacks ‘deliberately and entirely directed at civilian settlements’ as claimed by the LTTE (LTTE press statement, 26 April 2006). There has also been no mass displacement of persons from these areas as claimed by the LTTE.
The LTTE claimed that as a result of the government’s action more than 40,000 people have been displaced and are languishing as refugees.
The Government Agent of Trincomalee has since confirmed that the total population of Sampur is approximately 16,600 and that only a small fraction of the population left their homes during the military strikes.
This limited operation by the security forces which has now come to an end, was in response to a sustained campaign of LTTE terror attacks and specific attacks against the Sri Lanka Navy in the Trincomalee area. It was carried out as a deterrent to neutralise the threat posed by the LTTE to the harbour and key naval installations in Trincomalee.-LP