Both sides in a bloody conflict in Sri Lanka are alleging the use of a type of enhanced explosives, known as thermobaric weapons.
Government forces are well into the decisive final phase of operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). Six thousand civilians have been killed in fighting over the last three months.
On Monday the LTTE,a Tamil group fighting for independence, announced a unilateral ceasefire, apparently to allow civilians to escape from the “no-fire zone,” a coastal strip of about four square miles.
Reports of mass casulaties and gruesome injuries over the past few months is part of what sparked reports about the use of thermobaric weapons, which produce a prolonged pressure pulse that is far more destructive and lethal than standard explosives. There has been considerable concern about terrorists gaining thermobaric weapons such as the Russian RPO-A Schmel, because they can counter standard protection, such as armored vehicles (unless completely sealed) and body armor (which may amplify the blast effect). And the internal injuries caused by thermobaric weapons are difficult for battlefield medicine to treat.
How realistic are the allegations that the LTTE have employed thermobarics? The FBI calls the LTTE “among the most dangerous and deadly extremist outfit in the world,” and they have been accused of many attacks on civilians. They invented the suicide belt, and their Black Tiger suicide units have carried out more suicide bombings than Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda put together. (Incidentally, the LTTE are largely Hindu and have been accused of carrying out anti-Muslim campaigns.)
The Sri Lankan media, which is by no means impartial, have accused the LTTE of using thermobaric weapons for some years. The LTTE allegedly used thermobaric rockets in a 2005 attack that killed thirteen sailors, leaving bodies burned beyond recognition; a police investigator is quoted as saying : “We have asked the Government Analyst to carry out a special investigation into the matter as this type of weapon are banned all over the world.”
Recently the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said the government had found evidence that the LTTE were seeking to buy thermobaric weapons (as well as anti-aircraft missiles) on the international market. The government also claimed to have found an arms cache that included “”nine mortar launchers of five different caliber of 120 mm, 81 mm, 82 mm, 80 mm and 60 mm, six Multi Purpose Machine Guns (MPMG ), two thermobaric launchers, twenty pistols, three Rocket Propeller Guns (RPG), [and] seven claymore mines.”
It’s impossible to verify these claims, however.
On the other hand, there are also claims that the Sri Lankan government forces are using thermobaric weapons; they reportedly have acquired Russian RPO-A rockets in 2001 via a British company, Gladstone Industrial Holdings. The Sri Lankan army also appears to have been using heavy weapons in areas crowded with civilians, though government officials have denied it.
In an article in the Indian English-language newspaper The Statesman, M G Devasahayam last week described what he calls a humanitarian tragedy of horrendous proportions:
According to reports, not denied by the Sri Lanka government, a thermobaric bomb — a device that uses a fuel-air explosive capable of creating over-pressures equal to an atomic bomb — has been used in this mass killing. In one such attack over 520 men died and the Sri Lanka defence website displayed the photos as if these were trophies won.
The Sri Lanka defense website does indeed have an impressive gallery of “achievements” photographs from recent operations (as well as “LTTE Atrocities” and “Commander in Chief: official Events”) , with a section on the capture of the last LTTE stronghold at Puthukkudiyirippu. The pictures show bodies with no obvious external injuries, which might be a sign of death from thermobaric blast. But there also may be other explanations.
At least one petition to the UN has been raised over the Sri Lankan government’s use of thermobarics. I think we can guess how effective that is likely to be.
And, thermobaric or not, the slaughter of civilians in Sri Lanka continues.