When the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE's) eastern commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias 'Colonel' Karuna, challenged the authority of its supreme leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the latter took some time to respond. First, he denied that there was a rift between the two. Then, at a hurriedly summoned press conference held in Wanni, the LTTE leadership offered Karuna an amnesty.
Finally, as Karuna refused to accept the amnesty and 'safe passage' offered, and went on to consolidate his position in the East, Prabhakaran issued a thinly veiled 'death warrant', promising to "Remove him from this soil." With that order, Prabhakaran strengthened his forces and moved his cadres to the Verugal River close to Trincomalee.
The stand-off between the two factions began a few weeks ago, with
Karuna also sending his cadres, with his elder brother, Reggie, in charge of his forces, to the Verugal River.
Karuna knew that an attack was imminent and it was only a matter of time before Prabhakaran's forces would
strike. However, he underestimated Prabhakaran's strength and build up in the area. Karuna was only prepared
for a defensive operation, and had declared that he was not willing to shed blood and would avoid internal
All the cadres Prabhakaran is using to attack Karuna are drawn from the East, a deliberate tactical move, since he does not want the confrontation to take on the character of a battle between the northern and eastern cadres. Karuna claims to speak on behalf of the eastern region. Moreover, the eastern cadres know the terrain better than their northern counterparts.
On April 9, 2003, Prabhakaran's elite cadres made sea landings from the coast of Verugal Bay and Kathiraveli to join others who had camped along the banks of the Verugal River. Some cadres used bullock carts to infiltrate the area as civilians, while others took on Karuna's forces directly. They fought with heavy mortars and used claymore mines. Karunas cadres had countered the attacks successfully at the beginning but had to retreat after a major onslaught, having underestimated the rival numbers.
Karuna's spokesman, Varathan, later said that they were misled by
Prabhakaran's troops. It is still not clear how many cadres Prabhakaran used to carry out the attack, with
conflicting reports putting the figures between 300 and 1000. However, intelligence reveals that the LTTE
leader is sending more reinforcements to the area. Even the casualty figures are not currently known, though
there has been a lull in the fighting over the weekend as this report is written. Conflicting accounts
indicate casualty figures between 50 and 250, on both sides. Neither side would like to give correct figures,
since this is a battle of prestige for Prabhakaran and a battle of survival for Karuna.
Sources close to Karuna say that his withdrawal from the area was tactical and that he is ready for a wider offensive and a fierce onslaught now. Prabhakaran's troops still haven't confronted Karuna's crack fighters. It is, however, not going to be easy for Karuna either, since infiltration has already taken place and the groups would now have to fight in a no-mans-land, with Prabhakaran's troops having secured the advantage of the capture of Verugal, Vakarai and Mankerni.
President Kumaratunga, as the Commander-in-Chief of Sri Lanka's Forces, has given strict orders to the Armed Forces not to get involved in the LTTE's factional confrontation. The battle is taking place in LTTE controlled areas, and is not expected to spill over into areas controlled by the Government. With her United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Government now in power, Kumaratunga is also keen to get on with the peace talks with the LTTE as early as possible, to regain the confidence of the international donor community. Her Government has agreed in principle to discuss the LTTE's proposal for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA), which her party rejected when they were in the opposition. The Sri Lankan Army is now carrying out relief operations for the displaced civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross, UNHCR and the Sri Lanka Red Cross have also started relief operations.
The Armed Forces, however, have been put on full alert. The Ministry of Defence has also written to the Norwegian facilitators, stating that the factional hostilities in the LTTE were a violation of the ceasefire agreement signed between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE. The Government would, at this juncture, like the Norwegians to get involved, though the LTTE had, in the early stages itself, stated that the conflict was an 'internal matter' and they would sort it out by their 'own methods'. The international community and the peace lobbies, which had been severely critical of Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) as being 'anti-peace', have so far been silent in the face of the bloody fight between the LTTE's factions.
Prabhakaran would obviously want to finish off Karuna as soon as possible to establish his claim as the 'sole' representative of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The longer Karuna survives, the greater the loss of credibility for Prabhakaran. Prabhakaran cannot, further, commence peace talks with the new Government until he proves his might to the world. Karuna has tarnished his image severely with the latest allegations that Prabhakaran smuggled 11 shiploads of arms during the truce.
Having established his control over Verugal and other areas, Prabhakaran has now commenced intensive psychological operations in the Eastern area, calling on Karuna's cadres to go back to their homes. The situation is, however, also complicated for Prabhakaran, who will find it difficult to attack Karuna without crossing the Government-controlled A 11 Batticaloa-Colombo road, since Karuna has moved back to his bases in Meenaham, Karadiyanru and Thoppigala.
Some reports indicate that Sri Lankan security forces, particularly the Navy, had looked the other way when Prabhakaran's Sea Tigers made landings in Verugal. However, a senior official in the East denied these reports, stating that the Navy could not keep track of all movements in the area. However, if it is not possible to get to Karuna without crossing Government-controlled areas, how will Prabhakaran proceed? And what would be the new Government's stance? What will the Army say? Will Prabhakaran be lucky again? Will he, again, benefit from the foolishness of the South?
Bandula Jayasekara is Correspondent, The Island, Colombo. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine