Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Norwegians believed LTTE won’t release hostages Secret missive to Basil Rajapaksa revealed



by Shamindra Ferdinando
Member of parliament and presidential advisor, Basil Rajapaksa, received a one-page missive, on Feb. 16, 2009, from the then Norwegian ambassador, Tore Hattrem. The Norwegian embassy delivered the letter to MP Basil Rajapaksa in the wake of Ambassador Hattrem discussing the situation on the Vanni east front with President Rajapaksa’s brother. Basil Rajapaksa had been exploring ways and means of securing the release of the Vanni population, held hostage by the LTTE, and was in touch with Western diplomatic missions in Colombo, in this regard.

Before discussing the Norwegian missive, it would be pertinent to describe the situation on the Vanni front, at the beginning of the third week of Feb. 2009.The then army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s army, was advancing on the remaining LTTE strongholds, with the celebrated 58 Division and 53 Division spearheading the offensive. As the army stepped-up pressure on the LTTE, on multiple fronts, the Norwegians, too, intervened on behalf of the trapped civilian population.

On the morning of Feb. 16, 2009, Mi-24 helicopter gunships swooped down on LTTE strong points, south of Puthukkudiyiruppu junction. The air force launched sorties in support of the 53 Division, engaged in high intensity combat. Also, on the same day, troops of 5 battalion of the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (5VIR), serving under 53.3 Brigade, commanded by the then Lt. Col. Jayanath Jayaweera (present military spokesman, Jayaweera holds the rank of Brigadier) found two 130mm artillery barrels of Chinese origin in the general area, west of Puthukkudyiruppu, while conducting search and clear operations in the area.

In spite of facing a humiliating battlefield defeat, on the Vanni east front, the LTTE continued to hold the civilian population at gunpoint. Although, the five-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had turned a blind eye to the rapidly deteriorating situation, on the ground, Western powers intervened on behalf of the civilian population.

Hattrem’s note to Basil Rajapaksa revealed Norway’s serious concern over the LTTE’s refusal to release the civilians. The Island recently received a copy of the hitherto unknown Norwegian note, headlined ‘Offer/Proposal to the LTTE’, personally signed by Ambassador Hattrem. The Norwegian envoy was writing to Basil Rajapaksa on behalf of those countries trying to negotiate a ceasefire between the government and the LTTE, to facilitate the release of civilians, held hostage by the latter.

The following is the text of Ambassador Hattrem’s letter, addressed to Basil Rajapaksa: "I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE on how to release the civilian population, now trapped in the LTTE controlled area, has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far, there has been, regrettably, no response from the LTTE and it doesn’t seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree with this in the near future."

The previous government pathetically failed to examine available evidence to establish the circumstances under which the LTTE had held the entire Vanni population hostage, giving the army no other option than to overrun the LTTE.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) headed by one-time Attorney General, the late C.R. de Silva, never analyzed the ground situation. The LLRC lacked the expertise to examine the situation, and important documents, such as Ambassador Hattrem’s missive to Basil Rajapaksa, had never been made available to it. The previous government never realized the need, nor the importance, of closely examining all available information in spite of a section of the international community targeting it over accountability issues.

The Presidential Commission Investigating Cases of Missing Persons, too, never dealt with critical issues, even after the previous government expanded its mandate

Now that the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has delayed the presentation of the war crimes report, till Sept. 2015, the President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe administration should take advantage of the situation to re-examine all facts. Unfortunately, the Geneva issue seemed to be the last thing on the minds of the UNP-SLFP national government leaders. The new government seems to be preoccupied by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s desperate bid to make a comeback.

Close examination of Ambassador Hattrem’s letter is of pivotal importance to establish the circumstances under which the war was brought to a successful conclusion. The letter highlighted several issues. Had there been previous conversations and exchange of notes, between the Norwegian ambassador and Basil Rajapaksa, as regards the situation in the Vanni? Who had intervened on behalf of the Vanni population, in addition to the Norwegians? Did the TNA make representations to the LTTE, on the advice of Ambassador Hattrem, to secure the release of civilians? Most importantly, did Norway take any specific actions, after having admitted that the LTTE was unlikely to let the civilians go? Did Ambassador Hattrem share his assertion with Colombo-based diplomatic colleagues, particularly with his Indian counterpart, Ashok K. Kantha (2009-2013).

Ambassador Hattrem took over the Norwegian mission in Kabul, in July, 2010.

Perhaps, the new government should launch a fresh initiative to establish events leading to the annihilation of the LTTE fighting cadre, on the Vanni east front.

The army brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of May 19, 2009, with the killing of LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Ambassador Hattrem wrote to Basil Rajapaksa, consequent to the peace Co-chairs’ abortive bid to convince the LTTE to surrender. The peace Co-chairs, namely US, EU, Japan and Norway, made its appeal on Feb.3, 2009.The full text of the Co-Chairs statement is as follows: The Tokyo Co-Chairs jointly express their great concern about the plight of thousands of internally displaced persons, trapped by fighting in northern Sri Lanka. The Co-Chairs call on the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka not to fire out of, or into, the no-fire zone, established by the Government, or in the vicinity of the PTK hospital (or any other medical structure), where more than 500 patients are receiving care and many hundreds more have sought refuge. We also call on both sides to allow food and medical assistance to reach those trapped by fighting, cooperate with the ICRC to facilitate the evacuation of urgent medical cases, and ensure the safety of aid and medical workers. The LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka must respect international humanitarian law.

International efforts to persuade the LTTE to allow the civilians freedom of movement have failed. There remains probably only a short period of time before the LTTE loses control of all areas in the North. The LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka should recognize that further loss of life – of civilians and combatants – will serve no cause. To avoid further civilian casualties, and human suffering, the Co-Chairs: call on the LTTE to discuss with the Government of Sri Lanka the modalities for ending hostilities, including the laying down of arms, renunciation of violence, acceptance of the Government of Sri Lanka`s offer of amnesty and participating as a political party in a process to achieve a just and lasting political solution and call on the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to declare a temporary no-fire period to allow for the evacuation of sick and wounded, and provision of aid to civilians.

The Co-Chairs will work with the Government of Sri Lanka, India, the United Nations and others to ensure: the internally displaced people from the north are transferred to temporary camps where UN agencies, the ICRC, and humanitarian organizations will have full access and the IDPs will be treated according to international standards and resettled in their original homes as soon as possible and an inclusive dialogue to agree on a political settlement so that lasting peace and reconciliation can be achieved."

The previous government ended the Norwegian peace role here, in mid April 2009 about five weeks before (still an unknown soldier, believed to be a member of VIR, put a high caliber bullet through Prabhakaran’s head). Norway had been spearheading the peace initiative, first on the invitation of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, then Ranil Wickremesinghe before Mahinda Rajapakasa, too, extended an invitation for the same after having won the presidential election in Nov 2005.

Ambassador Hattrem’s note, dated Feb 16, 2009, proved beyond any doubt the credibility of a statement made by war-time US defence advisor in Colombo, Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith, at the inaugural defence seminar on ‘Defeating Terrorism: The Sri Lankan Experience’, during the first week of June, 2011. Smith was responding to a query directed by retired Indian Maj. General Ashok Metha to celebrated soldier Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Task Force I/58 Division.

This is what Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith had to say:

"Hello, may I say something to a couple of questions raised. I’ve been the defence attaché here at the US Embassy, since June, 2008. Regarding the various versions of events that came out in the final hours and days of the conflict – from what I was privileged to hear and to see, the offers to surrender, that I am aware of, seemed to come from the mouthpieces of the LTTE – Nadesan, KP – people who weren’t and never had really demonstrated any control over the leadership or the combat power of the LTTE.

"So their offers were a bit suspect, anyway, and they tended to vary in content, hour by hour, day by day. I think we need to examine the credibility of those offers before we leap to conclusions that such offers were in fact real.

"And I think the same is true for the version of events. It’s not so uncommon in combat operations, in the fog of war, as we all get our reports second, third and fourth hand from various commanders, at various levels, that the stories don’t seem to all quite match up.

But I can say that the version presented here so far in this is what I heard as I was here during that time. And I think I better leave it at that before I get into trouble. "

An embarrassed US Statement disassociated itself with the Colombo-based defence advisor’s remarks. The State Department’s Deputy Spokesman, Mark. C. Toner in response to a media query said:... just to clarify, the U.S. did decline invitations to participate in that conference as either a conference speaker or panelist. My understanding is that the defense attaché was there as an observer and a note taker. His comments reflected his personal opinions. There’s no change in the policy of the United States, and his remarks do not reflect any change in our policy.

Those responsible for safeguarding Sri Lanka’s interests didn’t take notice of Lt. Col. Smith’s remarks as well as the US State Department response, in spite of their significance. Smith wouldn’t have publicly denied speculative reports pertaining to offers of surrender on the Vanni east front had he not being convinced they were baseless.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon’s panel of experts, too, in March 2011 alleged the LTTE had deprived the civilians an opportunity to leave the war zone. In fact, the LTTE had been trying to strengthen its fighting cadre by forcibly recruiting children, even in Feb, 2009, as the army pushed them on multiple fronts. Perhaps, a section of the international community misled the LTTE into believing that its top leadership and families could be removed to safety before the army moved in. On the basis of the assurance given by those in the international community, the LTTE probably held the civilian cover until the last moment. The LTTE obviously had no qualms about using the civilians, in accordance with its overall strategy to defend the rapidly shrinking area, under its control.

In fact, the LTTE revealed its readiness to hold civilian hostage at the onset on the Vanni battle, in early 2007. But, the UN never inquired into the failure of its mission preventing civilians leaving the area under his control. The UN mission in Colombo refused to act, even after the LTTE detained Tamil UN workers for helping Tamils to escape (LTTE detains UN workers-The Island, April 20th, 2007). The revelation was made a year before the 57 Division fought its way into Madhu. Would you be surprised that there hadn’t been a single follow-up story in both the print and electronic media other than The Island? The Colombo-based diplomatic community maintained silence. The international media, including the Colombo-based Indian media, never took up that issue. Those who had been accusing the government of abuses at the drop of a hat had turned a blind eye to what was happening, though The Island vigorously followed-up the story (UN had talks with Tigers with strap line UN workers in LTTE custody-The Island, April 23, 2007), (Sri Lanka urges UN not to shield Tigers-The Island, April 25, 2007), (UN HQ admits Colombo office kept it in the dark-The Island, April 28, 2008). The much talked about Narrative III, too, ignored the UN complicity.

The previous government should be blamed for its pathetic failure to closely examine events leading to the final confrontation in the Mullaitivu district, once considered impregnable. The government’s failure is inexcusable. The government’s failure had allowed some of those, who had been eagerly waiting for an ultimate LTTE battlefield victory, to move the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against the country.

Would the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration re-examine Sri Lanka’s response as a matter of top priority or face the consequences?