Trinco likely to be major target if Tigers go back to war
Prabhakaran wants 10,000 cadres for "final battle"

By Our Defence Correspondent
Even as preparations are on for the first direct negotiations of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict in seven years in Thailand, LTTE recruitment cadres have been telling civilians in the northeast that LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran wants a force of ten thousand Tigers in order to launch what he has said will be the final onslaught to wrest full control of the North-Eastern Province and set up the nation of Eelam, according to sources in the LTTE-controlled areas of the northeast.

The town of Trincomalee is likely to be the main target of the LTTE’s offensive if the Tigers go back to war, sources said.

Military Intelligence estimates that the LTTE had a strength of between 4,000 to 5,000 cadres before the ceasefire began. However, the LTTE has used the freedom of movement throughout the northeast given to it through the Memorandum of Understanding by the government to launch their biggest ever recruitment drive.

There has also been very heavy movements of LTTE weaponry around the entire Trincomalee region, using the freedom of movement afforded by the MoU. Soldiers and police are now powerless to stop these movements or even search LTTE vehicles, since they are in areas that were not strictly within the government’s control. Before the ceasefire, only the town of Trincomalee and its surrounding areas, as well as a few other towns such as Kantalai and Muthur, were under government control. Areas such as the Somawathie Sanctuary area were under LTTE control, while major roads such as the Trinco-Habarana road were controlled by neither side and used by both.

But in the present situation, the LTTE is using all roads outside the Trincomalee town to transport weapons to new locations. Sources say the Tigers are setting up caches of weapons in different sites, in various hiding places, which they will use when attacks are to be launched in those areas. In this way, the Tiger cadres need to carry only a minimum of equipment.

Another alarming move is that LTTE intelligence gathering cadres have been especially active in the Trincomalee region, scouting the defences of the army, navy, air force and police in the area. Even at sea, the Sea Tigers have been sending boats around the Trincomalee bay, getting as close to the navy base as they can before being challenged by patrolling gunboats. Although there is no ceasefire at sea, the navy is being careful not to get into any confrontations which may hamper the peace process.

The importance of Trincomalee to the LTTE and the government cannot be understated. Trincomalee holds the key to the entire war. If the LTTE were to capture Trincomalee, they would have almost certainly won their fight for Eelam, unless government forces can recapture it.

It is from Trincomalee that supplies are sent to Jaffna. Should the Tigers go back to war, the Kandy-Jaffna road would be closed once again, and the only supply route would be the sea. Supply convoys need to be escorted past the Mullaitivu coast which is brimming with Sea Tiger attack craft, and it is from Trinco, which is the navy’s largest base, that warships join convoys and escort them to Trinco. The presence of this large fleet at Trinco prevents the LTTE from controlling the east coast. Without Trinco, warships would need to begin their escort duties from as far down as the south coast off Kirinda. Supply ships and warships cannot take any other route to the north, as the Adam’s Bridge area between Rameshwaram and Talaimannar is too shallow for ships to cross.

The LTTE has never been able to significantly threaten Trinco, which has more than 10,000 armed forces personnel, being a Divisional; Headquarters of the army and having the China Bay air force base as well. In addition, Trinco can call upon massive reinforcements from the Polonnaruwa area, which is home to thousands more troops and the Hingurakgoda air force base.

However, if the LTTE can recruit sufficient cadres to launch a major assault on Trinco, and prevent reinforcements from getting through across the Habarana-Trinco road, the situation would be different.

Trincomalee has long been the LTTE’s declared capital city of Eelam. As far back as 1982, Prabhakaran declared it as such. But with no possibility of capturing it, the Tigers had to settle for Jaffna as their capital. However, last week’s Pongu Thamil rally of over 50,000 people, also saw the Tigers revive their declaration of Trincomalee being the capital of Eelam.

It remains to be seen if the LTTE will be successful in bringing its strength up to 10,000 cadres. Over the last month, hundreds of LTTE recruitment officers have fanned out across the northeast, especially in the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts, enticing and cajoling young men and women and teenagers to join the Tigers. International human rights organizations have condemned the Tigers’ recruitment of children over the past few months.

The growth of the LTTE numbers will depend solely on the length of the ceasefire. The longer the peace lasts, the stronger the LTTE will become. The Tigers’ training programme for new cadres is typically six months in length.

On Friday, the government of Thailand agreed to host face to face talks between the government and the LTTE. The talks are expected to begin in May. Diplomatic sources said that the exact venue may not be Bangkok, but one of the other major cities in that country, probably a resort town where conference facilities would be available in hotels.

Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen visited Bangkok on Friday and met his Thai counterpart Surakiart Sathirai to discuss the negotiations.

This will be the fourth time that direct talks are held between the government and the LTTE. The first was in 1985 in the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu. The second was in 1989-90 in Colombo. The third was in LTTE-held Jaffna in 1995.

LTTE Theoretician Anton Balasingham arrived back in Sri Lanka on Monday and received a huge welcome from the LTTE hierarchy in the Wanni, landing by seaplane on the picturesque Iranamadu tank. It is not clear if Balasingham himself will lead the LTTE delegation to Thailand or if Thamil Chelvam will be the leader. Thamil Chelvam was the LTTE team leader during the 1995 talks in Jaffna.