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New Muslim battalion amid militancy furore

Amid a furore over the Liberation Tigers’ demands that Sri Lankan government disarms a Muslim entity called ‘Jihad’ which is amongst five anti-LTTE paramilitary groups being sponsored by military intelligence, the Sri Lanka Army is reportedly planning to raise an exclusive Muslim unit in the island’s volatile eastern province.



The issue of Muslim militancy has been gaining focus amid renewed suggestions by the LTTE that Jihad has links to Pakistani intelligence – a charge leveled by Indian military analysts as early as in 2004.



Sri Lanka is setting up its first infantry battalion made of only Muslims. Whilst recruitment is from the Ampara district, which has a large concentration of Muslims, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse says the troops will be deployed all over island and will not be restricted to the Eastern province.



Coming in the wake of repeated protests by the LTTE that Sri Lankan military intelligence was deploying a Muslim paramilitary group in its long running and bloody covert war against LTTE members and supporters.



Military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said mobile recruitment units were dispatched to Muslim villages in the Ampara district and interviews for news recruits to this battalion which started last Tuesday would continue up to April 5 at the army’s Combat Training School in Ampara.



He said the command structure of the battalion which would initially made up of 500 soldiers is yet to be worked out. Up to 800 soldiers may eventually be hired. After training will be entitled to a monthly salary package totaling Rs. 15,000 and other allowances. Sinhala soldiers in the Army earn a package of Rs. 17,000.



An announcement in the state-owned Sunday Observer this week in the form of an advertisement said new recruits should have a minimum qualification of having passed Grade 8 in schools and be a Muslim living in the eastern province.



The development comes amid a furore after the LTTE, supplying a dossier of evidence, asserted during the talks in Geneva last month, that ‘Jihad’ in Trincomalee is amongst five paramilitary groups being sponsored by Sri Lankan military intelligence.



Jihad’s former leader, Abdul Hakeem, was shot dead last September. His killing was reported to be linked to business rivalry and infighting within the Muslim community, but came amid a bloody cycle of violence between Army-backed paramilitary groups and the LTTE.



This week, in an interview to Australia’s Broadcasting Cooperation, the LTTE’s Chief Negotiator and Political Strategist, Anton Balasingham, said the movement can provide evidence the Jihad group has connections to Pakistani intelligence.



The activities of Islamic militants in Sri Lanka (particularly in the strategically important Trincomalee district) and their organic links to Pakistan drew the attention of Indian military analysts as early as two years ago.



“There have been persistent reports of the beginning of a radicalisation of small sections of the Tamil-speaking Muslim youth of the Eastern Province [of Sri Lanka],” Bahukutumbi Raman, Director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai, wrote in mid 2004.



Mr. Raman was once head of the counter-terrorism division of the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency, and has been a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board (NSAB).



“The [Pakistan-based Islamic militant group] Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) has been showing increasing interest in taking jihad to the Muslims of the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka,” he wrote in 2004.



“The LET is very close to the [Pakistani intelligence] ISI” Mr. Raman said. “LET would not have taken its initial moves to explore the possibility of using Sri Lanka as a clandestine base for its activities and for creating sleeper cells there without the knowledge and prior clearance of the ISI.”



Mr. Raman cited the activities of the ‘Osama’ group amidst the communal clashes between Tamils and Muslims in the eastern province in 2002 as well as reports that Tamil Nadu police had arrested some members of a local organisation called the Muslim Defence Force who said they had planned meetings with the Pakistan-based LET in eastern Sri Lanka.



Details of the Jihad group were among those of five paramilitary groups supplied in the dossier the LTTE handed over to the Sri Lankan government during the talks in Geneva. It included names of the Sri Lankan military intelligence officers coordinating Jihad’s activities, including a Major with the SLA’s 22 Brigade in Trincomalee.



The Jihad group mostly comprises individuals who either left Sri Lanka military intelligence wing or those who ostensibly deserted it, the dossier, extracts of which were later published in The Sunday Leader newspaper, says.



“The mode of action of the Jihad group is that each area is under a [local] head. These heads operate with the policy that other Jihad heads of other areas must not interfere in their area. Thus they all work independently with the military intelligence wing,” the report said.



Training and weapons for the Jihad group are provided by military intelligence, but the weapons are brought from Colombo in vehicles belonging to cabinet ministers, the report said, although the names of the ministers were not included.



But Muslims politicians have angrily rejected the LTTE’s accusations. An all party meeting in early March condemned the LTTE’s accusations and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), once the island’s largest Muslim party, has demanded the matter be taken up at the next round of talks.



However, the SLMC was itself once urging Muslims not to be drawn into militancy. In the wake of an attack on the newly opened LTTE political office in Muttur in June 2002, the SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem, then seeking an alliance with the LTTE, “condemned the sinister elements which attempt to disturb the prevailing cordial atmosphere between the Muslims and Tamils in the east.”



“The SLMC requests all peace loving Muslims to exercise restraint and not to fall prey to these extremist groups whose agendas go against the principles of peaceful cohabitation,” Sri Lankan state media quoted Mr. Hakeem as saying.



More generally, Muslim politicians have themselves often raised the spectre of Islamic militancy emerging in Sri Lanka to bolster their demands for political concessions from Colombo governments.



Even whilst denying the LTTE’s charges last week, Muslim politicians repeated a frequently aired warning that unless Muslim demands are taken into consideration a situation may develop where Muslim youth would be “compelled to take up arms.”



The Muslim United Liberation Front (MULF) leader Mujaber Rahuman even declared Muslims “have a right to take up arms if it was necessary for their defense as neither the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE nor the international community could defend Muslim rights.”



Muslim political leaders have also rounded on the independent election monitoring group, PAFFREL (Peoples Action for Free and fair Elections) after its head, Kingsley Rodrigo, voiced support for the disarming of groups involved in electoral politics, including Muslim ones.



PAFFREL has been attacked by Muslim politicians after they interpreted Mr. Rodrigo’s comments as claims of Muslim paramilitary activity.



The SLA has meanwhile rejected LTTE accusations it is supporting Jihad. Indeed, the military – like the Sri Lankan government – flatly rejects connection with any of the paramilitary groups blamed for a series of attacks on LTTE personnel and murders of LTTE supporters.



But SLA Spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe went on to suggest Muslim gunmen might indeed be operating: "There maybe underworld Muslims who roam around with arms, but we are not aware of an armed group called Jihad consisting of Muslims."



Interestingly, Sri Lanka’s former Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, on trial last year on charges of being behind the murder of ten Muslim youth in Kandy during the 2001 election, stated in his lengthy defence testimony that he had ordered Sri Lanka’s police chief to investigate the activities of Jihad members who had come to Kandy from Trincomalee on election day, December 5.



Muslim paramilitaries, most notably – and officially – under the banner of ‘Home Guards’ have long been a feature of the volatile and bloody dynamics of the eastern province.



The home guards are an auxiliary paramilitary force armed with assault rifles which operated closely with the security forces which are short of manpower in some disputed areas in the eastern province.



A Muslim home guard formation, including ex-militants from the then active ‘Jihad’ group, was also raised by the Sri Lankan military in the late eighties in a bid to stoke and exploit tensions between the Tamil and Muslim communities in parts of the east.



The Konduwattuwan Combat Training College in Ampara where the interviews are being conducted for the Muslim regiment now was also the venue where the eastern command of the Sri Lankan Army in August 1990 gave training to some 500 Muslim youths as home guards.