'Indian army didn't want to take Toppigala'
The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which battled the LTTE in North-East Sri Lanka from July 1987 to March 1990, did conduct operations in the Thoppigala jungles, but made no attempt to occupy the area because it had no strategic significance, a former area commander, Maj Gen Ashok Mehta told Hindustan Times on Thursday.
Gen Mehta's remarks are significant in the context of a claim by the Sri Lankan Defence spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, on Wednesday, that the IPKF could not occupy Thoppigala even though it had deployed 20,000 troops.
"Thoppigala was a vast jungle area which did not lie on any major line of communication. It was basically a hide out for the LTTE. It had hospitals, prisons and training camps. I have personally led operations to destroy these facilities. But we always came back to base, as there was no need to occupy the area. There was nothing to occupy!" Gen.Mehta, who led Indian troops in the Eastern districts of Batticaloa and Amparai, said.
But this was contradicted by the LTTE's military spokesman, Rasaiah Ilanthirayan, who told an Australian radio station, that the IPKF had set up camps in Thoppigala.
Cost of occupation
Taking and retaining Thoppigala will be costly, both in men and material, independent military experts say. But since the Sri Lankan government is hell bent on militarily defeating the LTTE, it would go ahead regardless of the cost, they added.
Ilanthirayan had told Tamilnet recently, that the Sri Lankan Army was walking into a "trap" as the LTTE's withdrawals were "strategic" in nature.
He admitted that the Sri Lankan Army had entered the Thoppigala area, but maintained that only the future would be able to say if the government's assertions were well founded. As regards the LTTE's plans he said: "At the moment we can only say that we are recasting our plans for the East."
Lankan army gung ho
However, the Sri Lankan Army is gung ho about its achievements and prospects.
"We have already taken 700 sq.km of Thoppigala, and have only about 7 to 8 km to go before the whole place is under our control," said Army spokesman, Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe, on Thursday.
But independent military observers say that the progress has been slow. There is stiff resistance by the LTTE and the terrain has been difficult. "If it is a walk over, why the did the Air Force pound the area on Wednesday and Thursday?" asked Iqbal Athas of The Sunday Times.
However, no one disputes the claim that taking Thoppigala is only a matter of time, given the manpower and the weaponry with the Army. In contrast, there are only about 400 ill-equipped LTTE there.
Observers feel that the need to take Thoppigala is political rather than military. The government's aim seems to be to take it by July 26, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa plans to celebrate the conquest of the entire East, covering a total of 5200 sq km, "something which has never happened before," as Brig.Samarasinghe said.
There are plans to follow this up by holding "free and fair" local elections without the interference of LTTE terrorists and thus get the plaudits of the moderate Tamils.
In July-end, Rajapaksa will be presenting the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party's plans for the country in the form of document, which is eagerly awaited because he is facing mounting challenges. There is a revolt in his party, albeit incipient. There is heightened activity of the opposition parties and increasing international censure for human rights violations.