Thursday, December 24, 2009

How Lanka averted US move to evacuate LTTE leadership

by Shamindra Ferdinando
About two months before the final battle on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in May, the United States had offered to evacuate top LTTE leaders and their families.

The unprecedented proposal had been made by the then US Ambassador in Colombo Robert Blake after the Co-Chairs to the Sri Lankan peace process, spearheaded by the Norwegians agreed that the LTTE could no longer halt the army advance.

Although a section of the press in March 2009 speculated that the US was exploring the possibility of evacuating civilians trapped in the war zone, it can now be revealed that the actual move was to evacuate the LTTE leadership. Well informed sources told The Island that the US plan envisaged taking over 100 persons, including Velupillai Prabhakaran, Sea Tiger leader Soosai, Intelligence Wing leader Pottu Amman and their families.

Sources said that Ambassador Blake went to extent of calling US experts to Colombo to work out modalities regarding the deployment of US assets to evacuate the LTTE leadership discussed the possibility of deploying US vessels to carry out the evacuation.

Sources said that an aircraft from Hawaii carrying US experts touched down at the Bandaranaike International Airport following a dispute over formalities regarding landing rights. Sources said that the US embassy had alerted the government of the impending arrival of the aircraft only after it was airborne.

Responding to The Island queries, sources said that at one point the Sri Lankan government had suggested that Ambassador Blake should also consult New Delhi regarding the controversial evacuation plans.

While secret negotiations were taking place, the Army had advanced slowly but steadily into the remaining LTTE-held territory in the Mullaitivu district. By the second week of March, a multi-pronged ground offensive was eating into some 45 square km territory under LTTE control. At the beginning of the Sri Lankan offensive in September 2006, the LTTE had about 15,000 square km under its control.

Sources said that government forces could have finished off the Tigers earlier had the army carried out an all out attack regardless of civilian losses. In fact, UN Chief Ban-ki-moon had inquired why the government did not carry out an amphibious assault on the Mullaitivu beach to conclude the offensive as he flew over the Vanni battlefields.

Sources said that much talked about UN bid to save about 50 LTTE leaders and their families was made hot on heels of the failed US attempt. Sources said that had international operations to evacuate the LTTE leadership succeeded, Sri Lanka would have faced an extremely difficult situation and the so-called Eelam government in exile would not be a joke had they escaped.

The US and the UN had intervened on behalf of the influential Tamil Diaspora which continued to play a pivotal role even in the post-LTTE era. Sources said that those pushing US and western capitals were not only Sri Lankan Tamils but influential groups from South Africa and South East Asian countries.

After Sri Lanka had successfully thwarted international intervention, the LTTE on its own tried to use one of its vessels to evacuate Prabhakaran and his family, the sources revealed.

Navy Commander Vice Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe last Monday (Dec 21) said that a 90-metre ship seized by a special SLN team was believed to have been involved in a last ditch attempt to rescue Prabhakaran. He said that a light chopper launched from the ship could have picked Prabhakaran as the army advanced on the last LTTE stronghold.

Fearing an LTTE operation, the navy deployed the bulk of its assets on the north-eastern waters while the SLAF stationed a pair of jets at the China Bay air base to meet any eventuality.

Once the 55 and 59 Divisions linked-up on the Mullaitivu beach, it was only a matter of time before the Tigers collapsed on the Vanni front.

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