Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-SRI LANKA: Suicide Squads Active Again

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Jul 9 2006 (IPS) - The Nelliaddy government school in northern Jaffna peninsula is nondescript except for a statue that honours the first suicide bomber who blew himself up on behalf of the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its campaign to carve out a separate Tamil state.

On Jul 5, 1987, Vasanthan Vallipuram alias Captain Miller drove an explosives- laden truck into the barracks of the Sri Lanka army, then housed at the school. That attack by the first of the ‘Black Tigers&#39, as the suicide squads of the LTTE are called, left 55 soldiers dead and halted a plan by the army to capture Jaffna town.

With a four-year-old ceasefire between the government and the LTTE faltering, the army did not take any chances on or around this year&#39s Black Tiger Day, which fell on Wednesday. Security was tightened island-wide and additional troops were deployed in the capital.

Where the Black Tigers are concerned, no precaution is good enough. Their ‘high value&#39 targets have included Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. In 1999, then president Chandrika Kumaratunga narrowly escaped a suicide bomber attack but with one eye permanently damaged.

Such successful strikes, penetrating tight security cordons, are attributed to high levels of motivation as well as meticulous planning. Black Tigers may stay dormant for years together, melting into the local population, until called upon to execute their deadly missions.

There is no accurate figure as to how many people have fallen victim to the carnage wrought by the Black Tigers. What is certain is that 138 men and 135 women, have blown themselves up to help the LTTE achieve military or political objectives.

The Black Tigers have honoured the truce but are now back in the limelight. In April, Sri Lankan army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka survived a suicide attack carried out by a woman inside army headquarters in Colombo. Two months later, in June, the army&#39s third highest ranking officer Maj. Gen. Parami Kulathunga was not so lucky – he was killed by a motorcycle-borne suicide bomber.

Since December, 700 persons, including 450 civilians, have died in hostilities involving the LTTE and the security forces. And the Black Tigers are known to have taken part in some of the worst incidents, including in devastating attacks at sea against the Sri Lankan navy.

The LTTE has fought successive Sri Lankan governments since the early 1980&#39s demanding a separate state for the country&#39s minority Tamils in the north and east. The fighting killed more than 65,000 persons before it was temporarily halted by the February 2002 Norwegian-facilitated ceasefire that is now under strain.

"No weapon, no technology can stop the determination of the Black Tigers. The suicide squads came into being at a critical juncture in the history of the Tamil struggle and has taken it to the next stage," Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran said in 2003.

The Sri Lankan military is equally aware of the deadly potency of the human bomb. "It is a one-way weapon. Once someone is in that mood there is no turning back," Maj. Gen. Sanath Karunarathna, now a commander in the north, told IPS.

Apart from top military and civilian leaders, the Black Tigers have destroyed with deadly precision the, the nerve-centre of the Sri Lankan security forces, the central bank, key petroleum installations and airline fleets.

Very little is known of the Black Tigers, except of their spectacular attacks. They have only appeared in public once. In November 2003, 27 members took part in a parade in the LTTE&#39s political capital of Kilinochchi, wearing black hoods. The Tigers took care that the faces of possible suicide cadres, who appeared with Prabhakaran at this year&#39s commemoration events, were blurred before the photographs were released.

Customarily a Black Tiger embarking on a mission partakes of a meal with Prabhakaran. They are given pride of place in LTTE cemeteries. But although marked by granite tombstones, many of their graves contain no bodies.

The suicide cadres are divided into two categories, according to military sources. They carry out reconnaissance on the front lines or specialise in infiltrating government areas. The Tigers also talk of another group known as ‘champion Black Tigers&#39. Though exact figures are not made available, a senior Tiger leader said, during July 5 commemorations in 2003, that there were at least 500 Black Tigers ready to go into action.

If Jul. 5 passed quietly, this year, it could be because it also marks the evolution of the worst internal threat the LTTE has ever faced. On Jul. 5, 2004, Ramalingam Padmaseelan alias Seenathiraja, who headed the Tiger political office in the eastern town of Batticaloa, was shot by the breakaway Karuna faction.

His death, eight days, later triggered severe bouts of internecine fighting. The LTTE and its breakaway group, led by its former eastern military commander Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan alias Karuna, have since fought each other fiercely with both sides losing high-ranking members.

The Tigers charge that the splinter group operates with support from government forces and this is one of the main reasons that the ceasefire is failing. The LTTE has, as a result of the split, been compelled to scale down political work. Black Tiger Day events are now low-key affairs.

But the Black Tigers continue to inspire young Tamils. "The killings, sexual assaults and arrests of our people should be stopped immediately. If not, all the students from every school will join in the struggle against the violence and later we will attack,&#39&#39 said a message issued on Wednesday by a group of students from Nelliaddy.

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