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Rain and thunder in the battle front


Trap mines and other explosives that litter the Mannar battle front and (inset) Indentification tag of a Tiger killed in action in Weli Oya last week

By Amantha Perera

The loudest thunder on the battle fields last week was left to Mother Nature. Torrential rains lashed the northern battle grounds leaving hundreds of thousands of civilians stranded by floods.

In Mannar, the epicentre of recent battles, over 40,000 civilians were affected by flash floods last week, in the divisions of Manntota, Nanattan, Mantai west and Madu (cleared areas). In Mantai west, over 16,000 were listed as hit by flood waters. Adampan, Palaikuli and Andankulam, all locations where government forces and the Tigers have had intense clashes recently are located in the Mantai west Division.

Civilians worst affected

According to Mannar government agent, A. Nicholaspillai, many of the civilians hit by the floods had not moved out of their houses, and the bigger damages would be to crops that were nearing harvest when the rains hit. According to statistics maintained by the Mannar GA's office, at least 12,000 acres of paddy land would have been inundated last week. Nicholaspillai said that relief agencies would have to also pay attention to provide seed paddy to farmers to commence the next harvest.

The rains also affected 120,000 in Eastern Batticaloa where the TMVP, armed with Rs.2.5 million per council, took control of the nine local bodies it won at the election a fortnight back.

The floods were yet another reminder that Sri Lanka's blood- soaked ethnic war has been fought in areas where ordinary people live. And the war can determine how people carry out mundane tasks like taking the bus.

When series of bombs hit Dambulla and Colombo on February 2 and 3, the already stringent security checks on vehicles moving through Medawachchiya, the last Sinhala majority town on the A9, became even tighter.

Medawachchiya also links to A14 that arches west and reaches Mannar. The movement of vehicles south of Medawachchiya was strictly limited putting a strain on  getting supplies into Mannar. The district is only linked to the south through the A14 or the A30 through Vavuniya.

There are also several checkpoints on the two highways linking Mannar. "Since February 4, access has been restricted to vehicles north of Medawachchiya checkpoint, creating additional challenges for civilian travel across the Mannar district. Restrictive procedures at checkpoints on the A14 (Mannar-Medawachchiya) road, including Uyilankulam, continue to cause serious problems with the supply of essential items, and are also resulting in price increases and fuel shortages," the Inter Agency Standing Committee (ISAC) said in a situation report released on March 15, dealing with the week just prior to the rains hitting the area.

The civilian cost of the war has been very high, and is something that the government has been trying to shake off, with mixed results. During the last three weeks it has been confronted with several unsavoury reports here as well as abroad. Among the lot was the US State Department's Country Report on Human Rights.

Reacts

The Foreign Ministry reacted to details in the report that spoke of increased killings and abductions in 2007. It sought to establish its retraction of the US report based on another international player active in Sri Lanka, especially in the conflict areas, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

"It was noted that while there had been allegations of increased killings and abductions in the latter part of 2006, and the first quarter of 2007, due to the escalation of terrorist attacks by the LTTE, the respected international humanitarian organisation, the ICRC, which has regular access to all parts of Sri Lanka except the LTTE controlled areas in the north and the east, has confirmed a distinct downward trend in disappearances and unexplained killings in government controlled areas during the second and third quarters of 2007. According to ICRC figures, contrary to the State Department assertion, this decline was also evident in the Jaffna district. Notwithstanding the access the US State Department has had to the confidential report shared by the ICRC with the GOSL, through its embassy in Colombo, it is deeply regretted that the US State Department appears to have ignored the improvement on the ground and relied on dubious sources which also feed the LTTE propaganda machine," the ministry said.

Ministry blamed

Whatever the ministry expected to gain by using the information provided by the ICRC at ministerial level discussions, the relief group reacted strongly to the inclusion confidential communications.

It blamed the ministry for abusing confidential information, provided only to the government and according to Foreign Ministry sources the ICRC has noticed the usage on at least one other past occasion.

"The ICRC deplores the publication and sharing of confidential reports submitted exclusively to the Sri Lankan authorities, and the Foreign Ministry's misrepresentation of its overall findings and its dialogue with the government," it said in a release that indirectly gave credence to what was stated in the US report.

"Extra-judicial killings and disappearances are part of a terrible pattern of abuse in Sri Lanka, which must be stopped," Jacques de Maio, the ICRC's head of operations for South Asia was quoted in the report. "The ICRC strives to bring this about through its confidential and direct dialogue with the authorities concerned. For this reason, we prefer not to enter into a public debate on the number of disappearances in Sri Lanka."

The rains however did not slow down clashes completely - sporadic clashes were reported in all locations where the government military has been testing Tiger strengths on the FDL - Mannar, Vavuniya, Welioya and Muhamalai.

Not a deterrent

The weekend over which the rains started to come down in buckets, fighting, mainly in the Mannar sector killed 47 Tigers and two members from government forces.

On Monday, March 17, the rains were again not a deterrent to the fighting. The army said that troops had continued engaging Tiger bunkers ahead of defences despite the rains, while the Tigers said that their own cadres had launched a counter attack on March 17 night.

Both sides said that fighting went on till the early hours of March 18 morning from 10 p.m. the previous night. The government said that the fighting took place in the Palaikuli area while the Tigers said that cadres had begun the assault at Thruketheswaran, about five km north of Thalladi and had even clashed with government forces within the Thalladi high security zone.

Tamilnet quoting Tiger military sources said that 14 wounded soldiers had been admitted to the Mannar hospital.

"According to the information, the fighting lasted for five hours until this morning, March 18, and at least eight LTTE terrorists were killed in this attack. Two LTTE bunkers were also destroyed in this attack, sources added. Four army soldiers suffered injuries in this confrontation, according to defence sources in Mannar," the Defence Ministry said. The Tiger attack had also prompted heavy artillery and mortar exchanges over the line of control, north of Thalladi.

Making in-roads

Clashes were also reported in Kallaikulam area, that lies on the district border between Mannar and Vavuniya. A fortnight back, there were reports that said that the military may have reached areas west of Puliyankulam on the A9. According to the ministry at least seven Tigers were killed by troops operating in the Kallaikulam area on March 17. Clashes were reported in the area in the next two days as well.

According to the military troops have forayed ahead of the FDL in the Weli Oya sector as well. Intermittent clashes have been reported from the sector since the beginning of this year and last week artillery fire and mortars flew over the line of control.

The Defence Ministry says that troops are operating in areas as north as Andankulam (the village shares the same name as the one in Mantai, but one lies on the eastern coast, on the southern edges of the Mullaithivu district) on the Kokkilai, Kokkuthuduwai, Kuma- lamunai road. It lies about 10 km ahead of the FDL and is on the shores of the Nayaru lagoon. Clashes involving small groups of soldiers were reported from Andankulam and Kokkuthuduwai on several days last week, including on March 17, 18 and 19.

Clashes have been also reported on the west side of the Weli Oya flank with troops and Tigers clashing in Nedunkerni and Marutodai.

Same tactics

The tactic adopted by government troops appears to be the same as that which has been seen on the Mannar front. Holding on to land has not been the main focus with troops willing to attack and fall back. The Tigers are also alive to the moves and according to troops, tend to fall back from defences, heavily mined, when challenged, allowing the troops to move in.

Government troops now sometimes leave the booby traps as they were in the bunkers, making it difficult for the Tigers to quickly fall back in place.

Small clashes were also reported from the Muhamalai front last week. Sniping and small arms engagement

were reported right through the week. Reports from the front said that the Tigers were seen digging large trenches along their forward lines in Muhamalai. The move is seen as a deterrent to assaults by the Mechanised Infantry Division (MID), the latest addition to the Jaffna fighting formation. The MID with its armoured battle tanks can move fast on the flat terrain in the area and burst through the defences. The tanks have been seen in action at least once this year, on Januray 31, when they formed the rear of an attack launched by troops on the Tiger defences. Troops however moved back to their original positions after the assault.

According official records released by the government 35 Tigers were killed in the fighting on March 17 where heavy rains were reported in Mannar, Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts.

The clashes were reported from Kokkuthuduwai (Weli Oya), Muhamalai/Nagarkovil, Karapemkulam/Kalaikulam (Vavuniya) and Adampan/Parayanlankulam in Mannar.

On March 20 an attack was reported on troops operating ahead of the defences that had attacked a tractor carrying Tigers at Konthakarankulam west of Omanthai around 2.30 in the afternoon. Initial reports of the raid said that five on the tractor and three other Tigers in bunkers nearby had been killed.

Clouds hamper

However rains have had an effect on the operations. It was only three weeks back that helicopter gunships of the air force were deployed to assist troops in Mannar.

They provided close air support to troops trying to move ahead of defences. However, low hanging cloud cover and bad weather would definitely curtail the effectiveness and mobility of the low flying gunships. There were no reports of them being used last week.

Nor were there any reports of air raids by air force jets. On March 15 the air force had carried out a raid in the Visavamadhu area, on the Paranthan-Mulaithivu road around 6 a.m. The target was a Tiger training base that had been under surveillance. However in the following six days no raids were carried out.

Troop and movement of vehicles also becomes difficult under soggy ground conditions. The whole Mantai Division was last week listed as flooded. There are close to a dozen tanks in the area that have spilled over.


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