Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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A Lapse in Diplomatic Security

Reading between the lines

by Anthony Dias, security analyst

In conclusion, it is the cream of the international representation in this island that was caught between the warring parties in Batticaloa. For reasons yet to be revealed, they, who are supposed to doctor the prolonged ethnic wound via their various modes of facilitation, were unable to gauge the actual situation in the east.

How can one hope that they can gauge the actual situation of the whole island?

Firing at foreign ambassadors is an extremely serious matter. They represent their countries in a foreign land and international standards demand their protection at all times. Therefore, the injuring of ambassadors of some of the world’s leading nations in Sri Lanka on February 27, 2007 has sent shock waves throughout the world. The Secretary General of the UN has aptly made a statement and it should be taken as a token of warning by all parties in the conflict.

Sri Lanka map ( TamilNet ) Naturally, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) are blamed for the incident since they are the ones who trained their barrels in the direction of the diplomatic landing site.

But that blaming should not be allowed to overshadow the immense ignorance behind the incident that almost killed diplomats of some of the world’s leading nations.

Immediately after the incident, the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the LTTE began blaming each other, as has been their standard practice since the beginning of this conflict. One cannot reach a well-informed conclusion by listening to them per se. The obvious place to start to understand the event is to first ask whether this incident could have been avoided by following some standard procedures. Has this been done in this case or did someone ignore his or her responsibility somewhere?

The first in line to be pulled up are the officials responsible for the security of the respective ambassadors whose lives were brought in harm's way. Every embassy has a security adviser and, in conflict-ridden countries, this appointment will be a very important one. The main task of the security officer is to ensure the protection of the officials of the mission during their stay and journeys in that foreign country. How did the relevant security officers handle this particular travel arrangement to Batticaloa? What advice did they give to their ambassador?

The writer of this article talked to some students of St Vincent’s Girls High School, which is adjacent to the diplomatic landing site, the Webber Stadium. The students confirm that GOSL artillery batteries often fire from that very spot towards areas controlled by the rebels. And the residents nearby also report on heavy shell trade between the parties for the past fifteen days. They also confirm that shells were heard even on that very morning prior to the incident. According one such shop-owner on Central Road, it was not the first time the rebels' retaliatory shells had fallen inside Webber Stadium, which is within the compound of the Regional Headquarters of the Security Forces.

The simple tourist map available in every nook and corner of Colombo suggests that the distance between Webber Stadium and LTTE strongholds on the west bank of the Batticaola lagoon is less than 5 kilometers. The Colombo media often reiterate that the Government Forces are currently engaged in an operation to ‘eradicate the LTTE’ from the east.

How did the security officials of the relevant high commissions evaluate this security situation? A simple check on flight details and a couple of routine queries would have saved the day!

Did these security officers simply believe everything the GOSL media had said regarding their victories over the rebels in the east?

Alternatively, was there some foul play that deliberately fed wrong information to the high commissions of these countries that supposedly have the best information-gathering technology?

The next in line to be pulled up are the UN officials, who have several decades of experience of working with the warring parties in Sri Lanka. A UN official connected to security matters was able to contact the LTTE liaison office in Kilinochchi within minutes of the incident and, immediately after his communication, the shelling was stopped, some sources close to the local UN office say. The LTTE liaison office in Kilinochchi and UNICEF officials in Colombo confirm the regular information sharing concerning humanitarian flights to and from Palali airstrip in Jaffna.

If so, why weren't similar regular procedures exercised in the case of the flight to Batticaloa? The GOSL maintains that the program for the ambassadors was announced to the concerned parties. The officials in the District Secretariat of Batticaloa confirm their prior knowledge of the arrival of the flights.  But, the LTTE liaison office in Kilinochi and their political office in Batticaloa say they were not informed of any diplomatic movement to Batticaloa.

Did the UN officials in Colombo expect an organization banned in several countries to be on the look-out for any traveling UN or diplomatic delegation and restrain themselves from retaliating against the security forces?

Or, did they also fall victim to the GOSL’s propaganda of a Tiger-free east? Or, were there also some foul play involved?

The third in line to be pulled up is the International and Local Non-Governmental Organizations operating in Batticaloa which the ambassadors were to visit. They are well aware of the modus operandi of the warring parties. One working in Batticaloa could be unaware of a secret military mission, but could never be unaware of a firing base right in the middle of the city. Surely, more than one officer of the entourage in the UN-hired plane knew that the landing site was a regular target of rebel fire.

In conclusion, it is the cream of the international representation in this island that was caught between the warring parties in Batticaloa. For reasons yet to be revealed, they, who are supposed to doctor the prolonged ethnic wound via their various modes of facilitation, were unable to gauge the actual situation in the east.

How can one hope that they can gauge the actual situation of the whole island?

One cannot help wondering if their efforts in this island may end up in doctoring themselves.