To catch the cub in the tiger’s den

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Photo: AP

ONE DAY in July 1987, in a plush room of a New Delhi hotel, an Indian diplomat was beginning to lose his temper at an intransigent young man. JN Dixit, then Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, wanted Velupillai Praba – karan, the dapper chief of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to accept a proposed accord between the governments of India and Sri Lanka that aimed to bring an elusive peace to the strife-torn island nation.

The accord stipulated that the Tigers, as the LTTE is popularly known, would lay down arms in return for a great degree of autonomy in governance of the Tamil-majority areas of Sri Lanka. Dixit wanted the LTTE to also drop its campaign for a separate Tamil Eelam, or nation. Prabakaran, of course, would have none of it.

“If you defy us,” said Dixit puffing angrily at his pipe, “We can finish you before I put out this smoke.” Four months later, the Indian army was locked in a disastrous conflict with the LTTE that was expected to finish in under a week but went on to last nearly three years, claiming the lives of 1,155 Indian soldiers.

Twenty-two years later, the Sri Lankan army claims that it is on the verge of wiping out the LTTE and capturing Prabakaran, dead or alive. On April 5, it announced the fall of the last LTTE stronghold, the town of Puthukudiyiruppu in northeast Sri Lanka. The army claims it recovered the bodies of 420 rebel Tigers from the town. Sri Lankan military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara says top LTTE leaders, including Prabakaran, his son, Charles Antony, and the intelligence chief, Pottu Amman are holed up in a 20 sq km area known as the ‘no-fire zone’, ironically a region where the most civilian deaths have taken place in the last two months.

“There is no way they can escape from here,” Nanayakkara told TEHELKA from Colombo in a telephonic interview. “We have surrounded them.” He refused to set a timeframe for their capture, saying that the army’s priority was to rescue the civilians trapped there.

This is not the first time in the last two decades that the Sri Lankan army has claimed it has cornered Prabakaran. Talking to TEHELKA, B Nadesan, the chief of the LTTE’S political wing, scoffed at these claims (see box). Last January, Sri Lankan Army Chief, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, had told journalists that Prabakaran may have fled the country by the sea route.

On April 1, the army claimed that Prabakaran’s eldest son, Charles Antony, 24, had been wounded in the fighting, which, too, the LTTE denies. The army now claims it is keeping a close watch on Antony, who is believed to have led from the front in recent battles. The Sri Lankan army claims Antony had “produced two powerful bombs”, but gives no more details on its website. The Sri Lankans also link Antony to a number of LTTE air attacks since 2007. The technosavvy Antony is widely tipped to succeed Prabakaran’s mantle.

The Sri Lankan army links Prabakaran’s son to many LTTE attacks since 2007

With the loss of the town of Puthukudiyiruppu, the LTTE is in the midst of one of its severest setbacks ever. Not long ago, the LTTE under Prabakaran ran a de facto state within Sri Lanka called Eelam. Controlling an area about 150km by 100km in size in northern Sri Lanka, Eelam had its own civil administration, courts, army, navy and even a fledgling air force. All this started to unravel when Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa scrapped the government’s six-year-old ceasefire with the LTTE and started an all-out war against it in January 2008.

Renegades Prabakaran and wife with their first-born Antony
Renegades Prabakaran and wife with their first-born Antony

THEY STARTED rolling up their mini-state bit by bit,” says Colombo journalist Kusal Perera about the LTTE. “The last town to go from them was Puthukudiyiruppu.” Perera, who has widely reported on the conflict as editor of the news website, lankadissent,believes that the Tigers are preparing for a guerrilla war from Sri Lanka’s eastern provinces, from where they were forced out a couple years ago. (Perera shut down his website in January following the assassination in Colombo of journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga, who was critical of the Sri Lanka government’s policies.)

Perera says the LTTE cadres have infiltrated the eastern districts of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Amparai. They are exploding landmines and carrying out attacks on the police, the army, and a progovernment milita group led by Karuna, a former Tiger turned ally of Rajapaksa.

It is expected that Antony will take over the leadership of the LTTE from his father

Suspected LTTE cadres shot dead HL Jamaldeen, a police officer, in Amparai on April 5. Two days earlier, the army had said it had ambushed 13 Tigers in the area. On April 1, a soldier was killed and another injured in a LTTE grenade attack in Batticaloa. A couple days earlier, six special task force (STF) personnel were killed in three separate incidents in the same district. On March 26, two ‘Karuna group’ members were gunned down in Amparai. A week earlier, the LTTE had attacked an STF camp in Batticaloa killing about three soldiers.

According to estimates, nearly 3,000 civilians may have been killed since last January.

The Sri Lankan Army’s casualties are never publicly disclosed. “About 10,000 Sri Lankan soldiers may have died in the last two years,” says Sirithunga Jayasuriya, a leader of Sri Lanka’s opposition United Socialist Party. Siritunga was a candidate in the 2005 Presidential elections that Rajapaksa won, and is a critic of the present regime’s policies.

Says the Army’s website: “Pockets of Tiger terrorists since of recent times after their entry into Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Ampara provinces have been carrying out a new wave of killings to provoke civilians and security forces.”

Portrait of a rebel family
Portrait of a rebel family

Many LTTE cadres are said to have entered the thick Mullaithivu jungles, an area where several Indian soldiers died during battles against the LTTE in the 1980s. This is truly the lair of the Tigers. India’s Major General Harkirat Singh, who headed the Indian Army operations against the rebels in 1987, had later noted that the LTTE “always managed” to smuggle in weapons despite the heavy blockade of the Indian navy.

Observers such as N Srikantha, the MP from Jaffna in north Sri Lanka, once a stronghold of the LTTE, echo such views. “It is a fact that thousands of LTTE cadres have melted into the jungles,” Srikantha told TEHELKA. Observers now expect that Prabakaran’s son, Antony, will lead the coming guerilla attacks on the Sri Lankans in uniform.

Indian journalist Anita Pratap, who shot to fame after interviewing the elusive Prabakaran, believes that Antony will eventually take over the leadership of the LTTE from his father some day.

“It is easy to inherit the title,” she says, “but hard to inherit the mandate.” Whether Antony can live up to the expectations remains to be seen.

WRITER’S EMAIL
vinoj@tehelka.com

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