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Midnight SMS' and truce talk


The area where the fighting was reported to
 have taken place last week

By Amantha Perera

It started with a SMS from Oslo to a Norwegian diplomat in Colombo well past midnight on July 21. The message said that the Tigers had informed Oslo that they were declaring a unilateral truce between July 26 and August 4 to coincide with the upcoming SAARC Summit in Colombo.

The Tigers by then had made it known through friendly media of the truce offer. The one SMS suddenly spawned many more as messages flew around among journalists, diplomats and government officials of the 'truce.'

The Tiger Peace Secretariat in Kilinochchi had first contacted Oslo by midday Norway time, but close to midnight here on July 21 to intimate the news. Then the Norwegian mission was contacted.

The Norwegian mission in Colombo spoke with the Government Peace Secretariat early on July 22 morning to inform of the truce. According to Director General, Peace  Secretariat, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha he was made aware of the truce offer first by calls from media personnel seeking reaction.

"We were informed by the LTTE Peace Secretariat of the truce on July 21 night and we in turn informed the Government Peace Secretariat on July 22 morning," Deputy Head, Norwegian Embassy in Colombo, Hildeh Haraldstat told The Sunday Leader.

Hinted

The Tigers had first hinted at a truce several days earlier. "We are not naive to disturb the SAARC conference. We believe that the other countries in the SAARC group will support us in our just struggle for the freedom of the Tamil people," its Political Head Balasingham Nadesan told this newspaper on July 20.

It was quite clear that the truce was aimed more at the international community than as an olive branch to the government.

"We are always keen to develop friendship with the countries of the world and our neighbouring countries in our region. We are sincere in our efforts to create the external conditions in order to build these friendships. We wish to express the goodwill and trust of the Tamil people. As a sign of this goodwill, our movement is glad to inform that it will observe a unilateral ceasefire that is devoid of military action during the period of the SAARC conference from July 26 to August 4, and give our cooperation for the success of the conference," the ceasefire declaration by the Tigers read.

As the government reaction became clearer by July 22 midday, the Tigers emphasised that this was a gesture of 'international diplomacy' on their part. "This is a gesture aimed at the international community and the SAARC nations in particular," Tigers Military Spokesperson Rasiah Ilanthirayan said later that day.

The  lukewarm government reaction was expressed by ministers and other officials. "The military is within sight of Kilinochchi and we will not do anything to discourage our soldiers," Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who headed the government delegation to the last round of talks in Geneva in October 2006 said in parliament. He reiterated the government's argument that it was not about to give 'oxygen' to a militarily weakened LTTE facing a government onslaught.

As if to make a statement that there was no let down in the pressure on the Tigers, and as Colombo was abuzz with the Tiger truce offer, air force jets carried out a raid over Uddayarkattukulam in the Mulaithivu District, east of the Iranamadu tank and south of the Paranthan-Mulaithivu highway.

The raid took place around 8.15 am and according to Air Force Spokesperson Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara the target was a training session of a group of Black Tigers who were rehearsing a suicide attack. He said that at least 22 Tigers had been killed.

Security in the city was also kept at high alert with the summit looming.

The Norwegian mission nevertheless was in touch with government officials throughout July 22, especially with the Peace Secretariat and the Foreign Ministry.

No official intimation

Prof. Wijesinha was quick to point out that the government was merely informed of a unilateral truce declared by the Tigers, and nothing else. "I wish that they (LTTE) had officially informed the Government of Sri Lanka or asked Norway to pass the message on to us officially, if they needed a response from the government," he said.

During their communications government officials had informed the Norwegians that there was no formal letter addressed to the government on the truce and it was merely a recipient of a press statement that went out public, Foreign Ministry sources said.

The government was also very quick to emphasis that despite the truce offer, the tone was very aggressive when referring to government troops and also expressed fears that the Tigers would use any mutually agreed lull in military operations to regroup.

"Because the chauvinistic Sinhala regime is putting its trust in a military solution, the war is spreading and is turning more and more intense. The Sinhala nation is intent on occupying and enslaving the Tamil homeland," the Tiger truce offer said. It also made it clear that if troop advances continue into their areas, they would resist, the truce notwithstanding.

"We would like to see a firm commitment on the part of the LTTE for a settlement of this conflict and a similar commitment to a demobilisation process," Foreign Secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona said.

The Tiger truce offer did not contain any indications of a change of stance over dialogue with the Mahinda Rajapakse government. On the contrary, before the truce offer was made public on July 21 night, Nadesan was quoted on a wire service report that there was no chance of talks with the government given the current military scenario in the north.

"It is impossible to hold peace talks when one party, the Government of Sri Lanka, is undertaking large-scale military offensives," Nadesan was quoted in the report that appeared on July 21 afternoon.

A red herring?

The Foreign Secretary also  raised concern that the Tigers had used past bilateral ceasefires to their advantage.

"We have experienced the LTTE's ceasefire offers earlier, which were used to regroup and rearm, creating greater havoc than before."

At the end of the day, there was no official  response for the truce from the government.

Kohona had met with Haraldstat from the Norwegian Mission in Colombo in the evening of July 22 and had conveyed the government sentiments that were by then public.

Foreign Ministry sources however said that there was no formal response to the Tiger offer as the government did not consider it received a formal notification of a truce. Kohona had communicated what had already been made known to the Norwegians during various  phone conversations and media reports throughout the day.

The truce offer came at a time when the security forces feel that they on a roll in the Wanni battle fields.

Four days before the announcement troops from Task Force One, operating along the A32 highway and areas just east of it and those from the 57th Division operating north of the Periyamadhu area, east of the A32, took control of the strategic Vidattalthivu bay, the main Tiger supply base on the northwestern shores. Just the day before the Tiger truce offer the military took control of Illupaikaddavai, where according to the Defence Ministry the largest Tiger base in Mannar was located.

The FDL between Mannar and Omanthai, north of Vavuniya has seen most of  the activity since Toppigala was gained by government forces in July 2007. While Task Force I and the 57th Division have been moving north of areas west and on the Mannar-Vavuniya District border, Task Force II and the 61st Division have recently opened a front just west of the A9.

Next target

Troops have made slow but steady progress in the Mannar-Vavuniya theatre and now are stationed at Illupakaddavai, Periyamadhu, Nandakandal  Navii and according to the most recent ground updates are now within reach of the Thunkkai/Mallavi area.

According to Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka the next target of the military is Thunkkai and troops are within striking distance.

Thunkkai and Mallavi lie almost dead centre on the Vellankulam and Mankulam road that links the A32 hugging  the northwestern coast to Pooneryn and the A9 that cuts across the Wanni.

If troops do in fact gain control of Thunkkai and Mallavi, it would cut the Tigers from access to the road. They would then have to resort to  minor roads and jeep tracks to keep supplies flowing to and from the northwestern coastal belt.

The only other road of similar quality to the Vellankulam-Mankulam road is the Ponneryn-Paranthan Road, way north, almost at the southern shores of the Kilali lagoon. The Tigers last week said that rains had hit the Wanni, which would also make transport that much more difficult on minor roads.

Indian defence commentator R. Hariharan last week observed that the Tigers do have a chance at counter attacking troops moving north if the northern most gains by the security forces are thinned out or isolated.

Counter-attack

"In the present operational situation, the Mankulam-Vellankulam axis to the east of A32 provides perhaps the best opportunity for the LTTE to launch a counter-attack to dislodge the security forces as they are stretched now with the rapid advance. So we can expect the 57th Division sector to the west of the A9 road to become active in the coming week," he said last week.

The 57th Division did in fact kick into gear last week when just two days after the Tiger truce offer, troops reached the bund of the Vavunikulam tank that lies just 3km south of Mallavi and the Vellankulam-Mankulam road. The Defence Ministry said that troops had secured the bund around 10 am and also recovered some weapons including a 120 mm mortar launcher. The Tigers had launched a counter attack in the area, but according to the army had lost over 20 cadres including two regional leaders of the Charles Anthony Unit - Pallavan and Anbu. According to the army, senior Tiger military commander Bhanu had been leading the cadres in the area last week.

The air force had also carried out a raid on a location 2km east of  Thunkkai that afternoon.

Within range

More importantly, if the government military consolidates the hold in areas like Thunkkai and Mallavi, the Tiger political nerve centre, Kilinochchi, will come within range of the army artillery units and army units moving forward will also have artillery fire power backing them.

Despite limited road access, the distance between Kilinochchi and Thunkkai/Mallavi on a straight line is within artillery range and some of the key Tiger installations, especially those southwest of Kilinochchi would be at risk.

Interestingly, the Tigers have for sometime now had limited access to a large portion on the Vellankulam-Mankulam road, just west of Thunkkai. Access maps maintained by the UN and other humanitarian agencies indicate a large red swathe that stretches about a mile on either side of the road that ends where the Mannar District begins - the red indicates that no access is allowed. The Tigers for some reason do not want any outside access to an area between Thunkkai and the Mannar border.

Truce or no truce, the unarmed civilians appear to be the worst off due to the recent fighting in areas between Mannar and Vavuniya, north of the FDL. UN reports indicate that several hundred thousand civilians were fleeing north, to Akkarayan and then towards Kilinochchi because of the fighting.

Situation report

"According to field reports displaced persons are sheltering under trees with limited access to basic facilities. UNHCR and UNICEF have distributed tarpaulin sheets to over 1,000 families so far," the Inter Agency Standing Committee (ISAC) - an umbrella organisation of the UN and other humanitarian agencies said in a situation report on July 19.

Not only were civilians fleeing a hospital, 30 schools and a warehouse facility used by the World Food Programme (WFP) have been relocated out of the areas where the fighting has been intense.

"Following the latest displacements in Manthai East and Thunkkai divisions in the Mullaitivu District, the Health Department is making arrangements to shift the Mallavi government hospital to Akkarayan where thousands of IDP families, mostly from Mallavi are settled. WFP also relocated its warehouse from Mallavi to Kilinochchi this week," the report said.

"Zonal Director of Education in Madhu (in the Mannar District) reports that 30 schools (6,949 children) have been displaced due to the ongoing hostilities in Madhu and Manthai West Divisions. These schools are functioning in alternative locations," it added.

There are over 106,000 IDPs in the districts of Kilinochchi and Mulaithivu and an additional  24,000 in Mannar, parts of which are  under government control. The report said that civilian population in the Manthai area in Mannar where the most recent fighting was concentrated was moving north.

Humanitarian situation

"The statistical update received from the office of the GA, Mannar (14 July 2008) indicates that there are 6,652 families (24,244 persons) registered as displaced within the district. The situation in Manthai West is changing rapidly with the population moving north, away from hostilities."

With supplies thinning out due to the fighting and civilians moving further north to escape, the situation appears to be desperate. "The humanitarian situation is getting increasingly difficult with serious food, drugs and fuel shortages. Health facilities in the district suffer from substantial shortages of medicines, personnel and fuel for operations," the World Health Organisation said on July 24.

Madhu Matha returns to Mannar

By Arthur Wamanan

The return of the venerated Madhu statue to government controlled areas last week is no guarantee that the popular August Madhu feast could be held at the church.

The Madhu statue was brought to the Bishop's House in Mannar last Tuesday (22) after being kept at St. Xavier's Church in Thevanpitti.

The statue was taken away from the Madhu shrine on April 3 due to heavy shelling near the premises and was housed at St. Xavier's Church till last Tuesday, July 22.

The statue was again shifted to the Bishop's House in Mannar due to heavy shelling in the Thevanpitti area.

Mannar Bishop, Rt. Rev. Rayappu Joseph told The Sunday Leader that it was decided to bring down the statue due to heavy shelling in the areas near St. Xavier's Church.

Civilians under threat

In a statement issued by the Bishop Tuesday night, he said that civilians in Thevanpitti and Vellankulam had come under threat due to heavy shelling.

These people - nearly 21,000 - were earlier displaced from Madhu and Manthai West. As a result, the statue was also taken away from St. Xavier's Church and brought to the Bishop's House.

Catholic officials in Mannar were tight-lipped on the issue until an official statement was issued by the Bishop last Tuesday.

The statue was brought down to the government-controlled area in Mannar, within less than 12 hours after the announcement by the Tigers that they would observe a unilateral ceasefire during the SAARC Summit.

The Bishop stated that the decision had nothing to do with the political developments and was solely the decision of the Diocese.

"It was our decision to bring the sacred statue to the Bishop's House temporarily. No one can question as to why we brought the statue down," he said.

Catholic officials have now planned to conduct special services at the parishes belonging to the Mannar Diocese in view of the August feast.

The Bishop said that the military had not completed its de-mining work and also had not ensured full security in the area.

Undertaking sought

The Bishop again reiterated that both the security forces and the LTTE should in writing state that they would not be present within 2.5 km of the shrine.

"They still haven't given permission for our volunteer workers to go. I gave it in writing stating that I would supervise the repainting of the shrine. But I hear that the army has already begun to repaint it. I did not ask them to do so," he said.

The statue was brought down by an ambulance belonging to the Madhu hospital through Omanthai. The route had cut through interior roads from Tevampitti to Omanthai and not branched through Kilinochchi.

The statue will be at the Bishop's House till a conducive environment is created for it to be taken back to its original abode, the Bishop said.

The military had said the statue could be taken to the shrine the same way it was taken away. The military was also engaged in repairs  amounting to Rs.1.5 million under instructions from the Army Commander.

"We will complete the renovation of the LTTE-damaged buildings of the Madhu Church and its environs in the first week of August," Military Spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.

Clearing operation

 The army has also launched a massive operation to clear the area of mines and booby traps and had lost one soldier last week in the process.

The road to the shrine and the camping area also needs to be cleared before the statue is relocated at the shrine, the Church officials said.

The diocese was to send seven voluntary workers to Madhu to clean the area once the military gives clearance.

The humanitarian situation is getting increasingly difficult with serious food, drugs and fuel shortages. Health facilities in the district suffer from substantial shortages of medicines, personnel and fuel for operations. - WHO Health Action In Crises, July 24.


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