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Velu in the crosshairs


Map of the area where last week’s attack 
on X-ray base took place and (inset) Body 
of a female cadre killed in last week’s 
fighting in Palakuli

By Amantha Perera

It is the silence that is unbearable, especially to an audience hunting for every morsel of information, rumour, and gossip…whatever that is out there.

And so it was when news came that an air force raid on a LTTE camp at Kalamadukulam, just east of the Iranamadu tank had targeted the biggest cat of all, Vellupillai Pirapaharan. The raid took place around 11.15 and Air Force Spokesperson, Wing Commander Andy Wijesuriya said soon afterwards that the base, code-named — X-ray, was frequented by the Tiger leader.

The Defence Ministry said that when the bombing took place there was ‘special activity’ taking place but did not give details. That was enough to start the latest frenzy for information or confirmation.

There was hardly any more information available from government sources who said that they were awaiting ground and intelligence confirmation of the attack. The pilots had confirmed that the raid was a success and the target had been destroyed. But who was inside the buildings that were hit? That is the million dollar question.

The Tigers as usual held their silence for over six hours after the attack. It was late afternoon that there was any reaction, that too on the pro-Tiger Tamilnet where Tiger Military Spokesperson, Rasiah Ilanthirayan rejected claims that Pirapaharan had been injured in the attack.

Tiger stance

Ilanthirayan said that there had been two raids — one in the morning between 11.10 and 11.35 and another in the early evening hours between 5.15 and 6 p.m. He gave the location as Vaddakachchi, which is the general term for the grama niladari division that lies immediately north east of Iranamadhu tank. He said that the raid had hit a civilian settlement and gave no further details.

The attack was an important one. Of that there is no doubt. Six aircraft — MiGs and well as Kfirs took part in the morning attack, one of the largest in recent times, and most definitely the largest since the ceasefire ended on January 16.

The aircraft flew low over the target site, the practice when a precision hit is required. The crafts could have carried a total payload of 24 bombs including bunker busters, with a maximum overall payload of 24,000 kg. It was a similar bunker buster bomb that was used in the attack on S. P. Tamilselvan on November 2. Tamilselvan is believed to have died due to pressure waves created by the bombs.

The Tigers had observed radio silence for a long while after the attack, adding more to the anxiety over whether Pirapaharan was in fact, hit. There were reports that said that shops in Killinochchi were asked to close. But official reports from the few relief agencies that are present in Killinochchi, to their Colombo offices said that there was nothing unusual after the attack. However during the raid, most agency staff had sought the refuge of bunkers located within their premises.

Well concealed

The X-ray base is located far from civilian settlements — it is about 10 to 15 km from Killinochchi town and the Tigers have effected strict access control in the area due to the presence of the Iranamadhu air strip and other military facilities. According to government defence officials it is one of the many Tiger ‘high security zones.’

From about three km east from the famous Tank View Hotel, where the Tigers housed visiting diplomats and other special guests a permanent barrier had been erected on the road that runs north east of the Iranamadhu tank and all civilian traffic is blocked.

The area also has thick forest cover. The location and its secrecy would mean that little independent details would come out of the attack other than what the two sides say officially, and what floats down the grapevine.

No outsiders are allowed into the Wanni through Omanthai and the Tigers have initiated more control, even on international agencies operating in Mullaitivu and other areas east of the A9.

Interestingly, the Tigers said that the air force had bombed the Ambalahama forest cover in Killinochchi on two consecutive days — January 23 and 24. One of the attacks referred to by the Tigers fits the time frame of the January 23 attack at X-ray base.

"At 11.30 a.m. and at 5.20 p.m. on Wednesday and again at 6.45 a.m. on Thursday, Sri Lankan Air Force dropped more than 16 bombs over the Ambalahama forest area damaging around 10 hectares of forest land," the Tigers said of the bombings.

The defence establishment was abuzz on January 24 with reports that heavy casualties were caused by the attack. The pilots of the jets had confirmed that the targets were hit. The injured Tiger cadres from the attack had been rushed to the Killinoch- chi hospital. The unverified intel report said that members from the Imran Pandiyan unit of the Tigers that is tasked with the personal security of the Tiger leader was hit in the attack.

The Tigers however rejected all reports of Air Force successes in the attack as ‘cheap propaganda.’

Doubts

The absence of Tiger anti-aircraft fire during the raid has however lead some to doubt Pirapaha- ran’s presence during the January 23 raid. The pilots have not confirmed whether there was anti-aircraft fire or otherwise. There was also no indication if the anti-missile systems of the jets had activated. The presence of missile batteries automatically sets off the anti-missile systems in the jets.

The Tigers are believed to place their truck mounted anti-aircraft guns and the their precious, yet depleted stock of SAM’s, to protect the top leaders from air raids.

In fact, six days before last week’s raid, the Tigers had used anti-aircraft guns at Air Force jets during a raid over Kanaka- puram, a grama seva niladari division that lies just south west of Killinochchi town on the side of the A9.

The Tigers said that bombs were drooped 100 metres from the Kanaka- puram Maha Vidyalaya forcing over 700 students to flee during the morning hours of January 17. Tamilnet said that Tiger mobile anti-aircraft units had moved to the area and fired at the aircraft forcing them to abandon the raids after two runs. In an earlier report Tamilnet said that four bombing raids were carried out.

The Tigers said that the January 17 raid hit a civilian mechanical workshop. But the military said that it was a meeting point of Tiger leaders based on valid intelligence. Ironically, the Air Force had carried out an attack on a Tiger mechanical workshop in the Puddukudirrupu area east of Killinochchi the day before, on January 16. The Defence Ministry said that the workshop was suspected to be manufacturing mortar shells for the Tigers.

Interestingly, according to the Tamilnet report the only casualty in the two raids — a man identified as 32 year old Murugiah Logeswaran lived in the Red Barna settlement at Visavamadhu, closer to Puddukudi- ruppu than Killinochchi. The Tamilnet report suggested that he died on the January 17 raid, that also forced schools in Killinochchi to close for a week.

The Selvanagar area, another suburb in Killinochchi was bombed by the air force on January 25 morning. Selvanagar lies about 8 km south west of Killinochchi town.

The Tigers said that mobile anti-aircraft batteries quickly moved to the area and tragetted the Air Force carfts. They said two civilians were killed in the attack.

Sidetracked

The air raids took the limelight off the continuing hunt for the attackers who are behind the civilian massacres in Buttala and Tanamalvila.

Between January 16 and 22, 48 persons, including 43 civilians, have been killed in the attacks that commenced with the deadly claymore attack on a bus at Helegama, south of Buttala on January 16 morning.

Thereafter, attacks were reported at Dabeyaya, southeast of Helegama, Hambegamuwa, about 15 km north west of Tanamalvila, Galge and Kitulkotte, about 7 km north of Tanamalvila.

Civilians forces

Additional troops, police and civil defence forces have been inducted into the area and by some accounts they number as much as 4000. Villagers from localities under threat have also been provided with firearms. There are plans to get 2000 youth from the areas under threat to join the Nadamithra Brigade — part of the Civil Defence Force.

Civilians in the Hambegamuwa area last week joined hands in the hunt for the attackers. There are still three persons who went into the jungles on January 16 looking for cattle listed missing in the area.

The locations of the attacks are indicative that the Tigers have spread far and wide in the areas. The first attacks in the area were reported in the early evening of October 15 last year when seven soldiers were killed in an attack at Talagasmankada army detachment inside the Yala sanctuary.

Following that the attackers were believed to have fled into the Kotiyagala jungles northeast of Yala. They are operating in several groups individually, numbering a handful of cadres, the largest possibly about 15 members, all operating on foot.

Search parties have been pursuing the attackers in areas south of Helegama and Dabeyaya, in the Hambegamuwa area and other outlying jungles. It was while all this was taking place that the police post at Aliwanguwa near Kithukotte came under attack on Janaury 21 night. The post was manned by officers brought into the area after the January 16 attack and the Tigers had attacked four persons, three police officers and a member from the civil defence force at the post around 7.40 in the night. They had lit a bonfire and were gathered around it when the gunfire erupted.

All except the member from the civil defence force died in the attack that took place on the main road that links Tanamalvila to Wellawaya. Aliwanguwa lies almost right in the middle between Galge and Hambegamuwa, leading to suspicion that it was the same group that carried out the Galge claymore attack on January 16 and the Hamabega- muwa massacre a day later. Or else two groups were operating in the deep jungles on either side of the highway.

On January 22, two soldiers were injured when gunfire erupted between troops and suspected Tiger cadres at Sirinandapura, southeast of Aliwanguwa.

Sniffer dogs on trail

Soldiers had been searching the jungles with the use of two sniffer dogs who were on the trail of the attackers when firing commenced around 12.30. A facemask was recovered near the location of the Aliwanguwa attack suspected to have been used by one of the attackers and the dogs were on the trail when one of them started barking prompting the firing.

There was no indication whether the attackers also suffered injuries. One of the sniffer dogs was lost in the clash but was eventually located by its trainer.

The January 22 confrontation was the second time troops had come across attackers operating in the area. The earlier occasion was on January 17 night when firing erupted at Hambegamuwa. That left seven dead, including three civil defence force members.

Either soon after or just before the Aliwanguwa attack, a field office of the Wild Life Department in the area too was raided and supplies including a gas stove had been taken away. The raid is suspected to have been carried out by one of the Tiger groups operating in the area.

Civilians in Buttala and Tanamalvila say that they suspect that the attackers may be using the rivers and streams that crisscross the region as a guide and operate close to them so as to avoid getting lost in the thick jungles.

They say that most of the attacks have occurred close to a river or a stream. The army also detected a group of around 30 Tigers in the Vilgamvihara area northwest of Nelveli north of the Trincomalee bay around 10 p.m. on January 24. One soldier was killed in the fighting and one Tiger was also suspected killed.

The military suspects the group could have been moving east and further south from the Welioya region to join cadres in the east. A group of Tigers is also suspected to be based in the Peraru jungles that lie south of where the clash took place.

Both the Tigers and the military reported clashes in the Kokkudu- duwai area in the Welioya sector last week. Clashes were reported at location refered to as the Ceylon Theatres Junction in the morning of January 24. The military said that eight Tigers were killed in the clashes.

The Tigers said that three soldiers were killed and six injured in the fighting.

Worst hit

The heaviest clashes however were reported in the Adampan area in Mannar. They have concentrated in Palaikuli that lies just west of Adampan junction. The Tigers said that clashes on January 24 lasted well over two hours from 6 a.m.

They claimed that six soldiers had been killed and 16 wounded. Last week, both sides said that they had deployed snipers in the Vavuniya-Mannar front. On January 20 morning, heavy clashes erupted in the Palaikuli area when the military tried to advance with heavy artillery and mortar fire. The Tigers said that they had prevented the assault and deployed snipers to target advancing troops.

They said that 16 soldiers were killed by the snipers on January 20, a figure that has been dismissed by the government military. Three days later, the government forces also said that snipers were hunting Tigers in Mannar and Muhamalai as well.

Government troops have been trying to take control of Adampan junction which in turn would cut off a major access point to the Vidalathivu area for the Tigers. Vidalathivu is one of the main supply bases for the Tigers on the northwestern coast.

New dimension

The discovery of 16 highly decomposed bodies from Kebethigollewa also raises a different dimension, something that the country has had to deal with in the recent past as well — unidentified bodies on the wayside, like those discovered by a Muslim cattle herder near Kebethigollewa. The first sign was that there was only one body as the man has seen only part of an arm and head jutting through the earth. When police began to dig, 10 bodies were recovered from the shallow grave and another six close by.

When the bodies were recovered they were at such deep state of decomposition that doctors at the Anuradhapura hospital say identification as well as determining the cause of the death would be a difficult task. 


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