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September 9,  2007  Volume 14, Issue 12


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Defence

 

         

Govt. troops advance beyond Silavathurai


Troops with recovered explosives in Silavathurai

Push south
continues off Mannar

By Amantha Perera

The ground situation in areas just off the Mannar island has come full circle, and all this took was 20 days.

Less than a month back, in mid-August, the area that had witnessed heavy fighting since early July calmed down considerably. Between August 10 and 16, a relatively fewer incidents were reported — there was an attack on a police post near Chettikulam at least 40 km east of the island and aerial attacks had been launched at suspected Tiger bases in Nedunkerni. In the Tiger heartland, comparatively, the week was the calmest in the last two months.

The traffic — both human and vehicular at the Uliyankulam crossover point increased from a weekly average of around 1,600 to around 12,000 within the six days, according to the ICRC whose officials are placed as observers at the crossover point. The western gateway to the Tiger held areas was also kept open five days of the week, up from the usual three.

The make-over was due to the feast at the renowned Catholic shrine in the country — the Madhu Church, located 15 km from the main Vavuniya-Mannar road. The guns were silent in view of the August 15 feast. But it was the briefest of lulls.

‘Lull before the storm’

By the time the 7,000 or so pilgrims from the south were making their way back through Uliyankulam, signs were already clear that violence was simmering under the surface and waiting for the annual feast to be over to rear its head again. In the week that followed the Madhu feast at least 14 combatants were killed in the area. Over 40 have died in the fighting since, including 20 who were killed in combat in the last 10 days.

The line of control that runs along the Vavuniya-Mannar district axis has been active since March. Government forces have tried to advance into Tiger territory from Periyatamapanai, about 40 km east of Uliyankulam and north of the main highway, and Iranilupaikulam, further northeast. Clashes have also been reported at Pullamoddai and Tigers have also reported of attacks and clashes with Deep Penetration Units (DPUs). At least two DPU attacks have taken place on the A9 road — one at Mankulam last month that killed a high ranking Tiger medical corps cadre along with four others, and another about 8km south of Kilinochchi town three months earlier.

It was after the fall of Toppigala to government forces that fighting had remained constant in the Madhu area, discounting the break for the feast. Clashes have been reported beginning July 6, and till the break in August at least 70 combatants had died.

Skirting issues

But neither the Tigers nor the military have been candid on the reasons behind the volatility. The government has been sticking to its line that forces have not been launching advances into Tiger held areas but have retaliated when provocative ground attacks or artillery had been directed at them.

According to SLMM reports the Tigers had lost some areas west of Omanthai early this year but had regained them in late June.

The Tigers say that the military has been constantly trying to breach the line of control and enter areas under their control. The LTTE Peace Secretariat said that one such effort had been launched on August 31 in Vilataikulam and a soldier had been killed.

But up until August 31, the alleged push and confrontations had taken place north of the line of control. On the last day of August (31), that changed, when government troops began advancing southwards from the Talliadi/Mantota area. They were moving towards Silavathurai, located on the coast about 15 km south of Talliaddi.

Other troop formations were also moving towards Silavathurai from Murukan, in the northwest and from the south.

Countering Tiger brutality

When the operation commenced, the Defence Ministry said that it was a humanitarian operation launched after civilians in Silavathurai claimed that they were brutalised by the Tigers.

"The civilians who had braved the crossover to liberated areas have told the security forces that they are regularly subjected to forced labour, torture, extortion and various other harassment by the LTTE," the Defence Ministry said. Initial estimates said that there could be as many as 6000 civilians in the area.

Troops advance

There was no indication of the Tigers putting up any resistance to thwart the advance. By August 1 afternoon, troops had reached Silavathurai. Two days later they had moved three more kilometers south to Kondaichchi.

By September 7, seven days after the initial launch of the operation reports indicated that government troops had moved to Mullikulam, close to the Puttalam-Mannar District border some 20 km south of Silavathurai.

The Tigers said that there were no armed units in the area but the Bishop of Mannar, Rev. Rayappu Joseph had earlier in the week written to President Mahinda Rajapakse highlighting that over 800 civilians were trapped in Mullikulam.

Large haul recovered

Troops have recovered large hauls of weapons and ammunition including 40 kg of TNT explosives and 480 anti-personnel mines. Twenty five dinghy boats, 26 outboard engines along with one suicide boat too were recovered.

The Defence Ministry also said Silavathurai was a strategic Sea Tiger base. Other defence establishment sources revealed that there was also suspicion that the location was used to infiltrate boats to attack the Colombo harbour and to take cadres to the south.

Silavathurai was also believed to be used by boats that were transporting fuel to the Wanni.

The Tigers had used the Kudirmalai point located south of Silavathurai to attack naval craft off Mannar. The military also believed that the Tiger cadres had been able to launch attacks on the Mannar-Medawachchiya road by infiltrating from the Silavathurai area. On July 14, a claymore at Chettikulam killed 14 soldiers and injured over 10.

Of no importance

The Tigers however dismissed any military importance connected with Silavathurai. Tiger spokesperson Rasiah Ilanthirayan said that the government had carried out a political stunt.

Silavathurai has never figured big in military operations up until a fortnight ago and in fact it was Kudirmalai Point that was believed to be the main Tiger staging point along the beach stretch. The last occasion it was in the news was during the Pongu Tamil celebrations held there in 2002. Even then the LTTE military presence was at a minimum. The beach however was used by fishermen. It was this cover of the fishing community that was used by the Tigers for their movements, according to defence sources.

Civilians — the victims

As has been the case civilians found themselves caught in the fighting with at least 3000 having fled the areas of fighting and seeking shelter in Nanattan, Murukan and other locations north of Silavathurai. Around 1000 were living with host families.

Twelve others, including three children were not so lucky — they were among a group of 14 that was fleeing southwards on Saturday, September 1 morning, when their van was the target of a claymore attack around 8.30 a.m. at Passanththenral between Silavathurai and Mullikulam.

Initial reports said that three had died. Later, the death toll was confirmed as 12 when the ICRC was called in to transport the bodies.

The Tigers blamed a DPU for the attack but the military said that it was not involved. Military Spokesperson Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said that the Tigers may have activated the mine during a case of mistaken identity.

Situation deteriorating

ICRC officials who had travelled to the area of the claymore attack after the army informed them, found themselves caught in shell fire. It was the second such occasion during the last weekend for the ICRC. Their officials who had travelled north through Uliyankulam to transport the body of the soldier killed in the Vilathaikulam confrontation faced the same scenario — artillery and shell fire and had to seek shelter in a LTTE bunker.

The shelling and the prevalent security situation in the area prompted the ICRC to pull out its officials from Uliyankulam, closing down the crossover point indefinitely.

ICRC officials said that there was no date fixed for their return to Uliyankulam and assessments by other observers indicate that the situation had deteriorated despite government assurances that there would be no operations in the area.

"Confrontations between the security forces and the LTTE were registered throughout the week (August 27 to September 2) in the northwest — first in the Vavuniya area, then in the Mannar District at the end of the week. Casualties were reported on both sides. These were the most constant and longest period of exchange of fire observed by the SLMM in the north since the first weekend in June when the LTTE recaptured the villages west of Omanthai previously lost," the SLMM said last week.

Even before the Silavathurai operation, there was a heavy buildup. Residents in Mannar said that the Tigers and the military were engaging in heavy artillery duals in the Talliadi area before troops commenced operations. The SLMM quoting the Tiger Peace Secretariat said that 80 artillery shells had been fired by the military on August 30.

Govt. delegation meets AI, HRW and ICJ

A HIGH high ranking government delegation last week held discussions with three international organisations that have been critical of Sri Lanka’s human rights record in Geneva.

The delegation led by Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe met representatives of Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) — all of whom have released critical assessments on rights violations in Sri Lanka.

The government delegation comprised Attorney-General C. R. de Silva, Secretary-General of the Secretariat for

Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka.

"During consultations with International Non-Governmental Organisations, the delegation met with the representatives of the International Commission of Jurists, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Geneva Call, and stressed the need for accurate, balanced and nonpartisan reporting," the Sri Lankan Mission in Geneva said.

The government delegation was in Geneva between September 3 and 6 to brief the international community on the human rights situation in the country.

The sixth session of the UN Human Rights Council will begin in Geneva tomorrow and Sri Lanka is once again likely to feature prominently.

Last week AI called on the international community to push for international human rights monitors here.

"As human rights abuses in the context of the conflict have increased, AI is gravely concerned about a persistent climate of impunity reported by human rights activists and other civil society actors in Sri Lanka. A need for systematic monitoring and prompt, impartial and effective investigations remains acute, made all the more necessary by an extremely small proportion of these human rights violations ever having proceeded to trial, or conviction of perpetrators in the past," AI said last week.

"AI calls for an international human rights monitoring presence to support and augment the capacity of national bodies tasked with human rights protection. Amnesty International is convinced that international observers actively monitoring respect for international human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides would act as an effective deterrent to abuses and would contribute to a clear identification of suspected perpetrators. Monitors could independently investigate claims and counter-claims, reporting publicly on their findings and on the degree of cooperation (or lack thereof) of the parties in conflict. The scheduled visit to Sri Lanka by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in October can be an important step in assisting the Government of Sri Lanka to develop programmes to protect human rights, and must lead to specific measures to protect the civilian population," AI added.

UN Human Rights Commissioner, Louis Arbour will be in the country on October 10 at the invitation of the government. However details of her visit have not been made public. The last two high profile UN visits — Allan Rock in November 2006 and John Holmes last month, both resulted in controversy.


Over 3000 displaced in Mannar — UNHCR

By Arthur Wamanan

As government troops continued their push south beyond Silavathurai, government and non-governmental agencies were scrambling to deal with thousands of civilians who had fled the fighting.

UNHCR said that 3000 had fled the fighting in Silavathurai and other areas west of Mannar coast.

The UN agency said that at least 2000 had fled areas west of Silavathurai after shelling from government forces.

"More families from the south of Mannar West have made their way north following government forces’ shelling. According to the latest reports around 2,915 individuals (703 families) have registered with local government officials in the northern parts of Manthai West," UNHCR said in a web posting.

Humanitarian concerns

It warned that though the situation was under control there were concerns over sanitation facilities as well as possible food shortages.

"There are several other concerns such as the serious lack of water and the impending food shortage due to the closure of the Uliyankulam entry/exit point. Limited assistance — both food and non-food-relief items have been provided to families, and more assistance is being planned," it said

The government and non-governmental organisations have started to provide IDPs with essential items and cooked food.

Officials however said the civilians could not return to their homes as the security situation was not yet stable in the area.

Most of the civilians who moved out of Silavathurai and Arippu have been sheltered in two main camps in Murunkan and Nanattan.

Essentials available

Humanitarian agency sources said that 127 families have been sheltered in Don Bosco School while 236 families have been sheltered in Nanattan Maha Vidyalam.

However, according to aid agencies there are no shortages of essential items at present.

"At both the shelters — Don Bosco School in Murunkan and Nanattan Maha Vidyalam there are 6425 displaced persons. There are people who have gone to areas like Achchankulam and Pontheevukandal," an official attached to one of the humanitarian agencies working in the area told The Sunday Leader.

Mannar Government Agent, A. Nicholaspillai said there were no shortages for essential items for the IDPs.

The government has given each family Rs. 2000 and dry rations for a week.

"The dry rations are given according to the number of people in each family," officials said.

Education affected

The academic activities of the students attending Nanattan MV have also been affected due to the presence of IDPs.

Government officials in Nanattan said that measures were being taken to conduct classes for the displaced children. "We do not have separate places. Even a tree would do for the teachers to have their classes," officials said.

Areas such as Mullikulam and Manthai West were not accessible until September 7 as they are in the uncleared areas, Nicholaspillai said.

According to government officials, around 200 families were in Mullikulam.

Officials said there were plans to take food and essential items to Mullikulam from Puttalam via Pookulam. However, the possibilities are limited as both these areas are controlled by the government and the civilians would have to cross the border.

Nicholaspillai said that all efforts to gain access to the area were futile. "The roads are also mined. Therefore, it is very difficult," he added.

Civilians in Manthai West have moved to Vellankulam, Paliyaru, Muzankavil and Pooneryn. "We have no access to them," he said.

The Bishop of Mannar, Rev. Rayappu Joseph has already written to President Mahinda Rajapakse on the plight of the civilians in Mullikulam.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Rev. Joseph said the government and the NGOs were doing their maximum for the welfare of the displaced civilians.

"Education has also come to a halt. There are plans to house some of the IDPs in churches as well," he said.

Around 8000 people in Manthai West have been affected due to the current situation, he said.

Aid agency officials however said there was no possibility of the IDPs returning to their homes as the security forces have not given permission to do so.

"The situation does not look conducive for the people to go back to their homes. We do not know how long they will be in camps," the officials added.

 

 


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