by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
There exists a “stand-off” situation between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Karaithuraipatru AGA division of Northern Mullaitheevu district.
Large numbers of LTTE cadres and key leaders are currently “boxed” in by the army between Vellamullivaaikkaal and Vattavaakal in M’Theevu district in an area of about 2 square km.
[This photograph released by the Sri Lankan military on May 15, 2009 shows what the army says is a government soldier on a beach inside the 'No Fire Zone'-Reuters pic.]
The Army after encircling the area is now establishing military positions in order to mount a no-holds barred full scale operation to go in and flush out the LTTE.
There is however considerable international pressure on the Colombo government restraining it from launching such an intensive operation because of fears that humanitarian catastrophe could occur.
There a large number of civilians in the boxed in area. These consist of family members of LTTE cadres, families of departed tigers (great heroes or maaveerar), families of those who worked in LTTE run institutions, close supporters and several ordinary civilian families suspected of being held forcefully by the LTTE.
According to “international” estimates the number of civilians believed to be held within the boxed in area is in the range of 25-35,000.
The Army which evacuated more than 70,000 civilians in the last three days is of the opinion that only about 10-15,000 civilians are in this area now.
Among these civilians are thousands of injured civilians many of whom are in serious condition as they have not received adequate medical attention.
The Armed forces had earlier planned to mount the “final” offensive on Sunday May 17th after the return of President Mahinda Rajapakse from Jordan.
The forces expected the military operation to be over in a few hours as they wanted to use maximum airpower and firepower to demolish the tiger defences set up in a comparatively “tiny” area.
They expected the demise of several key LTTE leaders including Velupillai Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Soosai. The army was aware that the LTTE supreme leader was injured.
President Rajapakse was expected to deliver an address to the nation in the evening of May 17th. Monday May 18th was to be declared a national holiday to celebrate victory over terrorism.
The plan did not go through as scheduled due to a number of reasons. Considerable pressure was exerted on account of anticipated civilian casualties.
There is also international pressure on Colombo to go slow and create time and space for speedy evacuation of seriously injured persons.
According to medical sources who have come out from the LTTE controlled area more than a 1000 people are feared dead and over 2500 injured in four days of fighting.
While hundreds of bodies were buried or cremated in mass graves, the wounded civilians are yet to receive treatment as the makeshift hospital itself had ceased to function.
The ICRC also is unable to send in ships and evacuate the injured persons as security clearance has not been given.
The Red Cross has been denied entry since the escalation of fighting four days ago.
It has been alleged that the ICRC ships are not being allowed to entry to evacuate the injured because the high toll of civilian casualties may be exposed.
Officially entry is denied at present because of the fighting. The ICRC vessels run the risk of being hit.
One way out is to enforce a temporary ceasefire and send the ships in. But the govt poised to achieve victory over the LTTE is reluctant to do so.
While the stand-off prevails both sides are exchanging fire sporadically. Moreover the LTTE black tigers are engaging in suicide attacks against military positions.
While the govt is under severe pressure to refrain from a major offensive the armed forces on the other hand are adamant that the LTTE should not be let off the hook under any circumstances.
Therefore the armed forces refuse a ceasefire temporary or permanent.
They are also insisting that they be allowed to go in with full force and destroy the tigers regardless of consequences.
But the Govt is in a dilemma to authorize such a move due to the International dimension.
While the armed forces regard the civilian supporters and families of LTTE cadres as “tigers” the International community regards them as civilians alone.
Thus there is an insistence that these people be given maximum protection due to civilians under international humanitarian law.
Moreover there is a likelihood of the govt and armed forces being held responsible for deliberate war crimes if large-scale civilian deaths and injuries occur.
Launching a military operation in a civilian infested area with prior knowledge that civilian casualties could result in large numbers can be interpreted as a war crime due to the element of “intent” it is feared.
Such civilian casualties cannot be disregarded as acceptable collateral damage.
Also preventing medical care and attention to the injured also amounts to a war crime.
Even if a military victory is achieved the govt runs the risk of a political defeat if it is condemned internationally for a war crime.
Likewise the LTTE will also be liable for a war crime if it is proved that the tigers are holding civilians as hostages and human shields against their will.
The Govt also estimates the number of people in the area at around 20,000. But the International community puts it as upward of 50,000.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has spoken to President Mahinda Rajapake over the telephone.
UN secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has also talked to President Rajapakse. The UN Secy-gen is expected to visit Sri Lanka next Friday.
Moon’s chief of staff Vijay Nambiar is already in Colombo.
Several diplomats in Colombo are also interacting with the govt urging it to show greater concern for the civilian plight.
Under these circumstances responsible elements in the govt are urging restraint while the hardliners supported by the defence establishment advocate a firm, final operation regardless of international implications.
The Govt finally resolved to back the army decision to move into the last stronghold of the LTTE in Mullivaaikkaal despite strong international pressure.
The “final” operation to finish off the tigers was launched in the evening of Sunday May 17th.
The key leaders of the LTTE and bulk of fighting cadres were identified as being located in an area less than a square km.
The Army’s elite special forces and commando units were deployed to enter the target zone.
Fighting is currently on now.
Against this backdrop the address to the nation by President Mahinda Rajapakse is scheduled for Tuesday May 19th.
It remains to be seen as to whether the President would be able to announce the full seizure of LTTE controlled territory and elimination of LTTE hierarchy during this address.
More importantly the nation particularly the Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka will await the President reaching out to them in a direct, sincere manner at a time of great significance.
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