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Straight-talking general vows to strengthen army by Namini Wijedasa

Army Commander Gen Lt Sarath Fonseka resumed official duties last week, defying many odds. In a hard-hitting interview with The Island this week, the straight-talking general vowed to continue efforts to clean up the army and to make it a better fighting force. Excerpts from the interview:

Q: What have you done since your return?

I looked into some administrative lapses`85 some promotions held up for the past three months. I also attended to some postings and vacancies from home although I have physically been in office for just seven days.

And as I landed here (from Singapore), the Mavilaru problem was already ongoing so I started taking control of the operation from home`85 shifting troops and giving them directions, making tactical plans. Even now, I’m fully involved.

Q: Was the battle to recover Muttur also conducted under your direction?

Yes. Nothing had happened except that troops already deployed there were fighting and hanging on. I oversaw troop movement, shifting commandos and driving them to clear the town, the route and the south, positioning additional battalions and companies. We also lifted Special Forces from Vavuniya and they are still operating in the area. Nobody else can do those things unless the army commander does. We moved troops and reinforcements very fast into the area. A mere 24-hour or 48-hour delay and the camps and town would have fallen. Half the navy camp had already fallen. We had to recapture the boundaries of the navy camp. We played a major role from headquarters.

Q: What are the new threats faced by the army as you see them?

You can see that the LTTE are desperate. They will want to recover. They will desperately attempt to notch some victory somewhere. They will try to go for a good, big target. Places like Jaffna, Vavuniya`85 those are the key areas should they want to register a victory. Those are locations we must take care of.

In the meantime, claymore attacks will continue in operational areas. We are taking precautions. Wherever we got targeted by the LTTE, we have very successfully retaliated, inflicting a lot of casualties on them. They have lost a lot of senior cadres, although the people only know about the generals who are being attacked in Colombo. Their own senior cadres are being attacked in their areas.

Q: Don’t you think that, during the period of the ceasefire, the LTTE must also have improved themselves?

They have certainly improved, especially their intelligence and operations in the south. Operations and activities in peace areas is the biggest problem now, like what happened at Digana. Even where weapons are concerned, I think they have got some additional artillery and mortars. They were used against us at Muttur and Kattaparichchan. Before the ceasefire, they were really down and out. They were in bigger trouble after Karuna left. But they have definitely taken advantage of the ceasefire to regroup.

Q: The military fought the LTTE for 20 years without victory. What makes you confident that you are better prepared to face them now?

We fought them but we also made a lot of mistakes. That is why we had a lot of debacles and reversals like Mullaitivu, Elephant Pass and Mankulam. We have learned from these incidents.

We mostly experienced setbacks due to a lack of good leadership in those locations. We are now tackling that. I am ensuring that proper, capable people are put to command positions. There’s no point in sacking a couple of generals, like in Mankulam, after the damage is done and we have lost a lot of things.

We have sorted that problem and you can see that it paid dividends in Muttur and Kattaparichchan. The soldiers fought back. Therefore, I don’t think that the LTTE becoming slightly strong makes a difference.

Q: You think that the army is better prepared to face the LTTE now?

Definitely. We are very well prepared and we will improve our preparations. We are confident that the LTTE can never inflict a lot of casualties or attack our camps successfully. We proved this at Muttur and Kattaparichchan. It will be the same result anywhere else if they try. We will definitely be in a position to attack them or even go on offensive in time to come.

Q: Is that planned?

If the situation demands, at some stage, the army will have no choice.

Q: Are you working with the Karuna faction right now?

No. We don’t want to get directly involved in this problem at the moment. But if there’s open war with the LTTE, then we will think about what type of connection we should have with Karuna. Not only with Karuna, but with anybody who is fighting the LTTE. Karuna breaking away from Prabhkaran would have been justifiable from his point of view. He has been a very active fighter all the way. Just because he wanted a solution to grievances in the east, Karuna cannot be undermined as just a reject from the LTTE. I think Karuna most probably had very good reason to leave the LTTE and start his own operations.

Q: Ulf Henricsson, the head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, says that the non-implementation of the Geneva I promise to disarm Karuna is what has caused the situation to deteriorate. Any comment?

The government never promised in Geneva to disarm Karuna and his people. The government said they will ensure that there are no militants or paramilitaries, not specifically mentioning Karuna, in government-controlled areas.

Q: Have they done that?

Yes, there are no militants or Karuna’s people in government-controlled areas.

Q: But there are reports that the Karuna faction abducted 17 children in front of an army camp in the east.

That’s unlikely. That cannot be possible. They have never behaved like that. There are enough LTTE cadres also in the east. Do you think Karuna cadres have enough freedom to walk around and abduct 17 children? They can’t all be abducted from one place. Are the LTTE sleeping in those areas?

Q: Given the frequency of the government’s air attacks on Tiger positions, do you think the LTTE will use their anti-aircraft missiles soon?

They may be having a few (missiles) but they don’t have them everywhere. I think the air force is also doing an extremely good job these days. They have also improved their capabilities. When the air force is operating effectively like this, a couple of anti-aircraft missiles can’t be much of a deterrent to them.

Q: Judging by recent LTTE operations, including repeated attempts on naval troop carriers, where do you think their next target is? Jaffna?

They are doing all these things`85 in Trincomalee`85 the troop carrier, Muttur jetty, south of the harbour`85 because they want to make it difficult for us to maintain a lifeline to Jaffna. So, I’m sure they have long term plans about Jaffna.

Q: Long term or sooner?

We don’t know how soon. Of course, if they can take Jaffna tomorrow, they will be the happiest. But at some time, at some cost, they will want to get to Jaffna.

Q: Are we prepared for that?

We have 25,000 troops there so`85

Q: Didn’t Elephant Pass have a large number of troops as well?

As I said earlier, we made mistakes. These were failures on the part of the army. Anyhow, Elephant Pass only had about 9,000 men.

Q: Is it fair to identify you as a hawk or a hardliner or somebody who is supporting war over negotiations?

My job, as army commander, is to deploy the army when the government writ, or the law and order of the country, is not prevailing in a particular area. We are tasked to go and bring law and order back. The army is not around to talk peace or do politics. And if there’s terrorism, an internal or external threat to the sovereignty of the country, the army has to go forward.

Q: How are you dealing with infiltrations into the army?

We have to cater for it and be aware of it. In any institution, there are people who will do treacherous things for financial gains. There may be a few like that in the army. We have to take additional precautions.

A good example is what happened at army headquarters. The suicide cadre obviously entered with someone’s assistance. Every citizen must be vigilant about this.

Wars in this country are increasingly fought on political decisions, the Mavilaru battle being one example. Are you happy with that?

We don’t still treat the current situation as war. At Mavilaru, there is a humanitarian demand. The government and we, as the legitimate forces of this country, have a responsibility to intervene. Obviously, the military had to get involved if the talks failed. The LTTE then started attacking some of our camps. We fought back in self-defence. I don’t think we can blame politicians for that. The LTTE must take all responsibility. The other option for politicians would have been to instruct the army wait in their barracks. I don’t think any government is supposed to do that. The government has done the right thing.

How bad is corruption in the forces, particularly among higher ranks?

There was a lot of corruption`85 corruption at every level including among quite a number of senior officials. Some of them are still serving. I had to get rid of some, actually. It’s not very easy. Even though corruption has taken place, it’s not very easy to get evidence and remove them. However, we can always keep them sidelined and ensure that they don’t get the opportunity of doing corrupt activities again. At least, that’s what I’m trying. On the other hand, I am personally looking into more details`85 in all the dealings and transactions in the army. I am taking very stern action against anybody caught for corruption.

Are you referring to people earning money?

Yes, earning money in different ways.

There are increasing reports that persons in the security establishment are accepting money to assist the LTTE? How are you tackling this issue?

There are only a handful of such people. The majority of troops are very loyal to the service and to the country. We are now looking into the activities of everybody. We are trying to be more vigilant, examining backgrounds and their associates. This applies to both officers and men. The military police and intelligence have been allocated the task of identifying these people. We will come down hard if anybody is identified.

After the attempt on your life, is it safe to assume that you no longer go someplace else for lunch?

(Laughs). I go for lunch. I have taken certain precautions, though.

Has the situation improved for you, now that you’ve been here a week? We understand that it had been a bit difficult for you when you first returned.

I took over work the day I came (from Singapore). Even before I went to Singapore, I was still commanding the army from hospital. It’s only a formality, that when the commander is out of the country, you appoint the next man as acting commander. That’s not an appointment given to anybody. The number two in the army will remain chief of staff although some people were trying to make a big hue and cry, saying that a new appointment has been made. I was commander before I left the country. As I came back, I started commanding again.

Are you getting cooperation from all senior officers?

They have no choice.

Is that a yes or a no?

They have to. If I find anybody not cooperating, then I have to take action against them.

Have the rumours stopped that you are incapacitated or unable to take over?

You can see me now. I didn’t have even any nerve damage. I don’t have any disability. From the time I regained consciousness after surgery, I had no disability or problems. I was talking and I could move my limbs.

It is obvious that there was internal assistance in your attack. Who wants to see you dead inside the army?

For something like money, there can most probably be a couple of people`85 if they are given a good deal. They don’t mind taking me or anybody else out. They don’t mind someone getting attacked provided their interests are looked after. I’m not saying there was a coup to destroy me or something in the army.

It was well known, that at the time you were attacked, you were taking very stern measures inside army headquarters. You were not popular with all senior officials. Do you feel there was anybody who was happy about the attempt on your life?

That will be the case with anybody else. If some people don’t like someone, they won’t give the best of their blessings for that man. When you take some firm measures, you can’t expect to be popular among everybody. My aim was to get the best people and give them their due place. Obviously, some people would have felt bad about it. But I’m not accusing them for this attack on me.

Will you continue your efforts to clean up the army?

Definitely, because that’s a national requirement. That’s not my personal requirement.

You are not on a witch-hunt?

No. With most of the people I have put to good, powerful positions, I have had nothing to do with them personally. Some people who have never had anything to do with me are given their due place based on the past performance. And some who had various loyalties to various other people in the past are also given good places because they have been good workers.

What message for your critics?

The message is that I’m doing all this because the army has failed in certain areas during the past`85 at certain times. It was mainly, I believe, due to weak leaders and weak commanders at different levels. And unless you rectify that, the army will continue to fail. You will see debacles and reversals in future but, during my command, I don’t want the army to have reversals and debacles. So I will look for the best people and give them their due place.

How long will you be commander?

(Smiles). Nobody knows. The commander gets annual extensions.

Is the army headquarters safe now?

When there’s terrorism like this in the country, no place is a hundred per cent safe. But we are taking all the precautions now.

I see you have finally got a walk-through metal detector at the visitor’s entrance. Wasn’t that a little overdue?

We didn’t use them earlier. We had only tried to identify people who entered army headquarters. We didn’t do body searches and if they (at the gate) were happy with the identification, they allowed anybody to enter. Now, however, we are reducing the number of civilians coming here. We took the hospital out. On the day of the attack, 1,800 civilians had entered army headquarters during the morning. Things have changed now. Part of the hospital has gone out. Only the surgical cases are brought here and even their visitors are searched. Every soldier and officer entering the headquarters is searched.

Anything you would like to add?

Basically, two things. I’m not trying to take the army on a warpath but the army will maintain law and order and safeguard the sovereignty and integrity of this country. That’s what the army commander is supposed to do… to train the army, to lead the army in that direction and to look after relevant government interests. But if there is no violence, if there are no attacks on us or on civilians and public property, the army can always stay in the barracks.

Something else I would like to add is that, after the attack, a lot of people rallied around me and I’m grateful to them. That shows that they, too, want the country to be free of terrorism. -The Island

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August 11, 2006 - Posted by | Media, Media Journalism, News, News and politics, South Asia, World News

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