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    South Asia
     Feb 18, 2009
Tigers unleash fury on fleeing ‘shields'
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Running out of territory to defend or hide in, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is resorting to desperate measures to prevent its "human shields" - the Tamil civilians among whom it is expected to hide when the Sri Lankan forces close in - from escaping. Last week, it carried out at least three attacks on Tamil civilians attempting to cross over from territory under its control to government-held territory.

Recently, 28 people were killed, including 10 civilians, and 64 others wounded when a female LTTE suicide bomber blew herself up at a checkpoint at a refugee center in Vishvamadu in Sri Lanka's war-torn north. The following day, LTTE cadres shot at civilians crossing into government territory in the Udayarkattukulam area of Mullaittivu, killing 19 and injuring 75. Then a woman was killed and 13 others injured when Tigers


hurled a hand-grenade and fired at a bus transporting Tamil civilians out of the war zone.

Over 250,000 civilians are said to be trapped in the small area in the jungles of Mullaittivu that is under LTTE control. As the Sri Lankan armed forces converge on this sliver of land, it is these civilians that the LTTE is expected to use as shields. The LTTE's top leaders, including chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, are said to be holed up there.

Although the LTTE claims that the civilians have chosen to remain with the Tigers, the Sri Lankan government and aid workers say they are being forcibly held back. The United Nations has issued a statement confirming that the Tigers are killing civilians fleeing the war zone.

The spurt in attacks on civilians by the LTTE stems from fear that its "shields" are deserting in large numbers. Some 30,000 Tamils are said to have fled LTTE-controlled territory this year; most of them in the past fortnight.

The LTTE has used intimidation and extreme force several times in the past to force Tamil civilians to accompany it on the run. In 1995, for instance, when it lost control of Jaffna town, it forced its residents to withdraw with its fighters to the jungle.

This is the first time, however, that it has carried out a suicide attack targeting ordinary Tamil civilians to ensure that they do not leave the LTTE.

The LTTE has the dubious distinction of having eliminated the largest number of top political leaders and security force personnel through suicide attacks. Its victims include former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa, the United National Party's presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake and defense minister Ranjan Wijeratne. President Chandrika Kumaratunga was partially blinded in an LTTE suicide attack in 2000, while Sri Lanka's army chief Sarath Fonseka and Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who is also the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, narrowly escaped death in suicide attacks in 2006.

The LTTE has carried out innumerable suicide attacks on defense installations and economic targets and these attacks have been successful in altering the government's strategy. A meticulously planned and executed suicide operation on Colombo international airport in 2000 dealt the tottering tourism-centric economy a deadly blow, compelling the government to come to the negotiation table.

"Suspect" Tamils have not been immune to the LTTE's suicide attacks. Noted Tamil constitutional lawyer and member of parliament Neelan Tiruchelvam was killed in a suicide bombing and Douglas Devananda, leader of the anti-LTTE Eelam People's Democratic Party and a minister, has been targeted by countless Tiger suicide bombers.

Thousands of Tamil civilians have been shot dead by the LTTE. With the attack at Vishvamadu, the LTTE has signaled that its suicide bombers will target Tamil civilians if their actions undermine its interests.

The LTTE's suicide bombers belong to an elite unit, the Karum Puligal - or Black Tigers. The Black Tigers undergo special training. The identities of its members are revealed only after they attain "martyrdom" by carrying out a successful operation. Black Tigers are highly "privileged" in the LTTE; they get to eat their last meal with Prabhakaran (though in recent years the "last supper" is often with intelligence chief Pottu Amman) on the eve of their suicide mission. The Black Tiger martyrs occupy the highest rung in the hierarchy of Tiger martyrs. They are revered by the LTTE, often referred to as gods in propaganda literature.

The Tigers are world leaders with regard to suicide bombings. Not only have they carried out more suicide attacks than groups like the Islamic Jihad, Hamas and al-Qaeda put together, but also their contribution to suicide bombing technology has been immense. The suicide bomb vest is an LTTE innovation, as is the use of the "human bomb", where a person strapped with explosives detonates himself to carry out the attack.

The Tigers claim to have inspired al-Qaeda. In an interview to the BBC some years ago, Soosai, the commander of the LTTE's naval wing, the Sea Tigers, said: "They are using our tactics. I think in Yemen they used our strategy of suicide attack to blow up an American ship. That is exactly what we used to do." He was referring to al-Qaeda's attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 in which 17 US military personnel were killed. The Sea Tigers have a separate suicide unit which has carried out a large number of attacks on the Sri Lankan navy.

Terrorism experts looking for clues to understanding suicide bombing have often turned to examining the socio-economic background of bombers and their psychological make-up. While the motivation of cadres is important for the successful completion of a suicide mission, examining suicide bombing as a tactic and suicide bombers as cost-effective weapons in the arsenal of terrorist groups is perhaps more useful in understanding why groups are resorting to suicide bombings with increasing frequency.

It does not cost much to carry out a suicide bombing. And it is very effective in triggering terror. And it is these low-cost, high-impact "weapons" that a weakened LTTE is likely to use increasingly in the coming months. While the focus of these attacks will be the capital, Colombo, the security forces deployed in the north and east will bear the brunt, with their convoys and camps likely to be targeted by suicide bombers.

But more immediately, it is Tamil civilians fleeing the LTTE's grip who will have to watch out for suicide attacks. These attacks could increase as the exodus increases.

For decades, Prabhakaran was criticized for compelling his fighters to swallow cyanide to escape capture or encouraging them to blow up their own bodies to kill the enemy. Now there is talk of him committing suicide in the event of the armed forces surrounding him, with some reports even predicting Prabhakaran and his fighters will commit mass suicide.

A report in the Sunday Times, a Sri Lankan English newspaper, quotes presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa as saying that the government has "substantial" intelligence indicating that Prabhakaran is planning a mass suicide with his hardcore fighters on the beaches of Mullaittivu, in the event of the armed forces closing in on him.

According to Rajapaksa, Prabhakaran expects many civilians to join the mass suicide. "It is not clear if the civilians were forced to put their names on the death list or had done it voluntarily," he said, adding that the event, which would be a major public show, would be videoed and shown to the Tamil diaspora to keep their support to the Tamil Eelam cause alive.

Tamil historical writings are replete with examples of soldiers and civilians taking their lives, even severing their heads to prove their loyalty to their king. There have been instances too of Tamils in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu killing themselves on the death of their leaders and heroes. It would not be surprising therefore if some Tamils did kill themselves should Prabhakaran commit suicide. But importantly, will they do so voluntarily or will they be compelled under the threat of a gun to follow the LTTE chief?

While the military genius of its leaders and the fighting prowess of its cadres won the LTTE the respect of many military strategists, its resort to suicide bombings provoked deep revulsion, earning it the "terrorist" tag in several countries.

If the LTTE is planning a mass suicide as Basil Rajapaksa claims, it is playing a high-risk game. Mass suicide will no doubt showcase the motivation of the Tigers to the international community and draw attention to the deep despair that drives a section of Tamils to kill and die for a cause. But it will also trigger a tidal wave of international revulsion with its methods.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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