Hundreds of troops of the Sri Lankan Army moved on Sunday to capture the Mavil Aaru dam in Trincomalee district from the LTTE, even as the rebel group warned that it would offer "fierce resistance."
The army action, preceded by aerial bombing of the dam area on Saturday, was meant to open the sluice gates of the dam and resume the supply of water to about 15, 000 families, cultivating 30,000 acres of land in that area.
"It is a humanitarian operation and not a military operation," the government Defense Spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwela, told Hindustan Times over telephone from Kandy.
"As we did during the tsunami, we are using troops to accomplish the humanitarian task of restoring water supply to a suffering people," he explained.
The LTTE had closed the sluice gates of the Mavil Aaru dam on July 20, and was bargaining for the supply of water to Muttur East and Eachchilampattu, which were in areas controlled by it.
Further justifying the government's action, spokesman Rambukwela said: "We had to do this because talks with the LTTE over the last six days had failed. Over 100 children had fallen ill as a result of the shortage of water."
LTTE to offer fierce resistance
On Saturday, the LTTE's Trincomalee district political leader, S.Elilan, said that the Sri Lankan army's incursions into Maavil Aaru area would be fiercely resisted.
In a letter to the Maj.Gen.Ulf Henricsson, the Head of the Scandinavian-staffed Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Elilan said that the continual aerial bombing and artillery attacks being carried out by the Sri Lankan armed forces smacked of a Declaration of War.
"It is now appropriate for the SLMM to declare publicly that the ceasefire agreement is not holding any more on the ground," he said.
Pointing out that Sri Lankan ground forces had begun moving towards Mavil Aaru dam, the LTTE leader warned: " We would retaliate fiercely if the Sri Lankan troopers enter our Mavil Aaru area. It will lead to serious consequences."
Government Defense spokesman Rambukwela said that troops would have to be careful when they approach the target, as the place would have been heavily minded by the LTTE.
"But we are determined to achieve our objective," he said.
The Army media unit told Hindustan Times that the troops had not met any resistance from the LTTE so far.
According to the LTTE, Sri Lankan jets bombed the area around the dam on Saturday. There were three sorties, at 9 am, 11 am and 2 pm, the pro-rebel Tamilnet website reported.
The Mavil Aaru operation was being conducted by Maj.Gen.Nanda Mallawarachchi, the Army second in command, based in Trincomalee town.
Gen.Mallawarachchi was at Kallaru near the Mavil Aaru dam on Saturday trying to pacify thousands of Sinhala farmers who, led by a Buddhist monk-politician, Ven.Athuraliya Ratana Thero, were wanting to march to the dam and reopen it.
Ven.Ratana Thero is the leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in the Sri Lankan parliament.
Nordic monitor slams air raids
The Head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Major General Ulf Henricsson, told Reuters on Saturday: "It is definitely the wrong method. It is definitely overkill if you want the water."
On the overall military situation in the island, Henricsson said that the government and the LTTE had "more or less terminated the ceasefire agreement, through their actions."
The Swedish General is a worried man, not only because Sri Lanka is on the verge of war, but also because the LTTE is refusing to accept monitors from the European Union (EU) countries following the EU's listing of it as a terrorist organization.
Sweden is a member of EU.
While Sweden has not decided whether to stay on or quit the SLMM, Denmark and Finland have already quit.
Top LTTE commanders injured in air raid?
Meanwhile, media reports quoting intelligence sources said that Col. Bhanu, the LTTE's military chief for Batticaloa district, and Col.Jeyam, who was in line to succeed Bhanu, were injured in Saturday's air raid on the rebel group's conference centre at Karadiyanaaru.
Bhanu was "badly injured" in the back, The Sunday Times said.
A diplomatic source described the injury as "critical" but added that the report was yet to be confirmed.
The Army's media unit said that it had not received any official information about Bhanu's fate.
The LTTE had claimed that Bhanu was not among those present at the conference hall.
But this is discounted by knowledgeable sources who point out that the meeting, which was taking place at the conference centre at the time of the raid, was to do with the award of identity cards to civilians who had undergone military training conducted by the LTTE.
Being the commander of the area, Bhanu would certainly have been present, they say.
According to The Sunday Times 40 odd people, both cadres and civilians, were killed in the air raid.
But the LTTE had played down the incident, saying eight were killed and four were injured. And in the list of the dead it put out, there were no leaders, whether political or military.
LTTE retaliation feared
If Bhanu and Jeyam were really injured (or dead), it is a major set back for the LTTE. It could also be a powerful trigger for a retaliatory strike, military experts here said.
Bhanu is the founder-commander of the LTTE's artillery regiment. He had replaced Col.Karuna as the Batticaloa commander after the latter was driven out of Batticaloa in April 2004, following his revolt against Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran a month earlier.