SF denies claim of 40,000 civilian deaths in Vanni

.. says his men paid heavy price by not using heavy weapons


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Strongly denying accusations regarding the death of 40,000 Tamil civilians during the final phase of the offensive on the Vanni east front (January-May 2009), Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka on Sunday (May 17) said that the army had to pay a very heavy price for not having the liberty to use heavy weapons against the LTTE.

War winning Army Commander, the then Lt. Gen. Fonseka emphasised that the army had no option but to refrain from maximizing the use of powerful weapons at its disposal for about four and half months because of the civilian factor.

Field Marshal Fonseka was responding to Shan Wijetunga on a live Rupavahini interview to coincide with Sri Lanka’s sixth anniversary celebrations to mark restoration of peace and stability.

A confidential US diplomatic cable dated July 15, 2009 signed by the then Geneva based US Ambassador Clint Williamson cleared the Sri Lankan army of crimes against humanity. The cable addressed to the US State Department was based on a confidential conversation Ambassador Williamson had with the then ICRC head of operations for South Asia, Jacque de Maio on July 9, 2009. Williamson said: "In fact, the army actually could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet they chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths."

The tough talking Sinha Regiment veteran said that his army had been severely handicapped by the government decision to suspend the use of heavy weapons due to external pressure. "The army lost well over 2,000 officers and men during January-May 19, 2009, whereas a similar number died during the entire 2008. The unprecedented losses reflected the level of fighting under extremely difficult circumstances."

The army lost over 5,000 officers and men during the eelam war IV.

Referring to allegations as regards the execution of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son, Balachandran, Field Marshal Fonseka said that the boy must have died during the fighting and his troops weren’t accountable.

Field Marshal Fonseka said that had the offensive killed over 40,000 civilians there would have been only skeletons left in former LTTE strongholds. The war veteran recollected the circumstances under which his army had rescued civilians trapped in the area held by the LTTE and nearly 12,000 LTTE cadres gave themselves up.

Declining to comment on the alleged killing of surrendering LTTE cadres, Field Marshal Fonseka insisted that a section of media discussed the so-called ‘white flag’ killings. The Field Marshal said that the alleged incident referred to as ‘white flag’ killings had taken place when he was away in China to finalize the acquisition of armoured fighting vehicles to the Mechanized Infantry.

Lt. Gen. Fonseka said that he returned to the country around 9 pm on May 17 after having left for China on May 11.

The leader of the Democratic Party (DP) said that in spite of his absence the operational staff assigned to him ensured specific instructions thrice a day to fighting formations. Field Marshal Fonseka said that by the time he left for China, the battle had been transformed into Sergeants and Corporals war due to the enemy trapped in 12 km long and 2 km wide area. The Sergeants and Corporals led a sustained advance into the enemy territory and the LTTE rump couldn’t have survived for more than two weeks.

Asked by Wijetunga whether he had received a special message from US Secretary of State John Kerry when the DP leader met him at the Taj Samudra on May 2, Field Marshal Fonseka quoted the US official as having told him: "Now that you have won the war, it’s time to take a look back." Kerry was responding to Field Marshal Fonseka after Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera introduced the DP leader as the man who led the successful war against the LTTE.

The Field Marshal said that the US official meant that post-war reconciliation process should continue in line with international standards.

Responding to another query, the Field Marshal stressed that he always believed that the LTTE could be finished off within three years. The outspoken officer recalled him confidently assuring the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga of the possibility in bringing the war to an end in three years. Field Marshal Fonseka mentioned the names of three of the four officers who had been summoned by President Kumaratunga to ascertain their views. According to Field Marshal Fonseka, none of those present agreed with him. "One of them mentioned the Western powers losing to Viet Cong to justify his assertion that the LTTE couldn’t be defeated."

He had  opposed a decision taken during the Norway-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) during 2002-2003 period to vacate Jaffna High Security Zones (HSZ) as such a course of action would have caused a catastrophic situation, he said. The Field Marshal said that he took a principled decision for the sake of the country, though it could have gone against him.

Field Marshal Fonseka said that President Kumaratunga had sought his response as well as the then Major General Shantha Kottegoda to the possible collapse of the CFA. "President Kumaratunga wanted to replace the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle. The President inquired from me and Kottegoda what would our response be in case of resumption of hostilities. Kottegoda promised to ensure security of our bases until the resumption of talks, whereas I vowed to destroy the enemy. The President preferred Kottegoda because she accepted what he said."

The Sea Tigers had received a big boost courtesy the money received from the then UPFA presidential candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa in the run-up to Nov, 2005 poll and the funds had been utilized to acquire attack craft for the Sea Tigers, Fonseka claimed.

The former army chief also strongly criticised President Rajapaksa for suspending operations for 48 hours on January 31 and Feb 1, 2009. The LTTE took advantage of the president’s move and launched a massive attack which caused debilitating losses on the army, both in terms of men and material. The Field Marshal alleged that truce declared under pressure from a section of the international community was meant to allow top Tigers to escape.

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