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Are the Tigers looking for an exit strategy from the peace process?

This is a question begging the attention of the policy makers, specially, in the aftermath of the abortive sea Tiger attempt on the Navy personnel carrier ferrying 710 soldiers.

The history of the previous negotiations with the Tigers are that the Tigers ended all past peace efforts, unilaterally at the most unexpected moment, taking on the security forces by surprise and inflicting maximum possible damage on the forces, both human and collateral.

In 1990, the LTTE launched an all out offensive against security forces in the North-East, bringing Prabhakaran's short sojourn with the Ranasinghe Premadasa administration to an abrupt and of course tragic end.

Six hundred policemen who surrendered to the LTTE under the orders from the then President Premadasa, who was also the Commander in Chief, were slaughtered. A number of military camps in the North were attacked, some such as Kokavil, collapsed. In 1995, Velupillai Prabhakaran called it the day to the peace process with the Chandrika Kumaratunga Administration by blowing up two Naval ships berthed at the Trincomalee harbour.

Within days, two air crafts were shot down using shoulder held SAM missiles smuggled during the period of peace negotiations.

There is always a possibility of the Tigers repeating their past.

It looms large in the backdrop of the failed sea Tiger attack on the Navy personnel career MV Pearl Cruiser, which was transporting unarmed security forces personnel and was sailing under the flag of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission at the time of the incident.

The ship had to sail into the Indian waters to avoid the approaching sea Tiger boats.

A lesser pessimistic opinion is that the attack on the Navy gunboat, alone with the abortive attack on the Navy passenger ferry was a tit for tat for a navy intervention at the sea Tiger exercise in the coast off Sampur on the same day morning.

Hours before the sea battle off Vettilaikerny, Dvora gunboats fired at about ten sea Tiger boats in the seas off Sampur. As the Tigers retaliated, a further naval bombardment was directed at the sea Tiger positions on the coast.

The sea Tiger attempt on the Navy ferry and the gunboats escorting it, could, then, be viewed as a retaliation by the Tigers to the Navy firing on that same morning and also a tit for tat by the sea Tigers to the zero tolerance policy adopted by the Naval forces against the sea Tiger movements.

Whatever it may be, the abortive attack on the Navy personnel carrier was outrageous in its simple term.

The Ceasefire Agreement is still intact, at least, technically speaking. But, given the history of the LTTE and the ruthlessness manifested in its evolution, the possibility of the Tigers embarking on such an outrageous attack even while claiming their adherence to the truce agreement is always a possibility.

The Navy ferry was about to end an over eight hour journey which began from Trincomalee to KKS when a flotilla of sea Tiger boats emerged from the coast off LTTE held Vettilaikerny. As the flotilla of nearly 20 sea Tiger boats approached the vessel- Navy said there were 12 sea Tiger boats plus four suicide boats involved in the battle - the four Navy gunboats blocked the path of the sea Tigers and engaged them, enabling the personnel carrier to sail into the deep sea.

The gunboat P 418 was hit by the sea Tiger firing and its engine got stuck, upon which a sea Tiger suicide craft rammed the gunboat, blowing it up at 4.50 pm Thursday. Sixteen sailors including two officers and an army signalman perished in the blast.

The Navy said nearly 50 sea tigers were killed in the confrontation and that five sea Tiger boats were destroyed.

On Friday, Navy divers recovered seven bodies of the sailors who were aboard the ill fated Navy gunboat, P 418. The divers also recovered remnants of the Tiger suicide boat powered by four outboard engines. The wreckage of the Navy gunboat has also been recovered.

The sea Tiger attack and subsequent Navy retaliation have however pointed to the lapse of the central commanding structure of the three forces.

Naval officers have complained that the air support came too late, indeed, two hours after the initial request had been made and that by the time, the air force gunships arrived on the scene, the battle is almost over with one Dvora being destroyed.

There is also a complaint that the initial requests for artillery strikes on Vettileykerny coast, from where the sea Tigers embarked on the attack had been declined by the Jaffna Security Forces Commander.

This is a pointer to the absence of a joint command structure of the security forces, which there by delay immediate security actions when they are most needed.

The need for joint operations command, where by all three forces and the Police Special Task Force come under the Joint Operational Commander had been underlined by many senior officers, most recently by Gen Janaka Perera.

In the absence of air support, the Pearl Cruiser had to sail into the Indian waters, where the Indian maritime patrol crafts and air crafts came to its protection.

Following the blowing up of the Dvora gunboat and failed attack on the MV Pearl Cruiser, the government authorized a coordinated strike on the LTTE positions, some deep inside the uncleared areas. Israeli built Kafir fighter jets bombed LTTE air strip in Iranamadu and identified LTTE targets in Mankulam, Mullaitivu and Vettilaikerny along with certain undisclosed locations.

Indeed, the bombing of the LTTE air strip was first considered when the government authorised the first coordinated strikes following the LTTE suicide attempt on the life of the Army Commander, Gen Sarath Fonseka. At that time, however, it was decided not to target the airstrip, considering this would only be unnecessary provocation at the expense of a symbolic damage to the Tigers. This time, however, there was no reason for restraint.

This time, there were also no complaints of civilian casualties from the LTTE, either. The Air force has confirmed that they hit the targets, which are identified as LTTE military camps.

The head of the ceasefire monitors Ulf Henricsson on Friday held a crisis meeting with the LTTE political commissar S.P.Thamilselvan. Henriccsen's meeting came in the immediate aftermath of the SLMM determination in which the truce monitors ruled that the sea Tiger attack was a "gross violation" of the ceasefire, adding that the Tigers had threatened the truce monitors not to go aboard Navy patrol crafts.

The ceasefire agreement provides the Sri Lankan Navy with the full authority to control the sea. And according to international law, only the state actors could rule the sea and air space. "1. Sovereignty of a coastal state extends, beyond its land territory and international waters and in the case of archipelagic state, its archipelagic waters, to an adjacent belt of sea, described as the territorial sea". "2.

The sovereignty extends to the air space over the territorial sea as well as to its bed and subsoil," according to the United Nations Contention of the Law of the Sea (Section 1, article 2) But when Mr Henricssen met Thamilselvan, the LTTE political commissar refuted SLMM statement and demanded an immediate clarification of the statement issued by the truce monitors previous day.

"No body should have the right to pass judgement on our sovereign right to have access to our adjacent sea and air space of our homeland," Thamilselvan was quoted in pro-LTTE Tamilnet website.

So the SLMM Chief had to return empty handed, with no breakthrough, no assurance from the LTTE either to restrain the sea Tigers and no security guarantee for sea monitors. Mr Henricsson told the Sunday Observer that he reiterated that the LTTE has no right to sea and that each sea movement of the Tigers is a ceasefire violation.

"I told him they have no right at sea, either by the International Law or by the Ceasefire Agreement. But he (Thamilselvan) insisted on it"

" I told him, whatever they claim, there is no change in my position," said Henricssen.

I asked him what he had in mind to tame the sea Tigers, now that the Tigers have snubbed him and the monitoring mission. He would meet the Norwegians before he decided on the next course of action, he said.

Thamilselvan has also complained to him of the ariel and artillery bombardment by the security forces, but when the SLMM chief asked to visit the area which came under the attack, Tigers have refused to take him there.

"I told them to show me evidence, if you want me to make a ruling on the incident, but they didn't let me in" Henricssen quipped.

Of course, the Tigers may have worries to let the SLMM Chief in to their main military camps which were targeted by air strikes.

As for the attack on the gunboat, Henricsson said, "I told them they are involved and our monitor aboard the vessel has evidence"

" Thamilselvan didn't deny it either," he said. As for the Ceasefire agreement, Thamilselvan has told Henricsson that the Tigers are still bound by the truce.

Meaning the ceasefire remains in tact at least in a technical sense!



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