Sri Lanka has suspended sales of mobile handsets and SIM cards by third party retailers in the embattled north and east of the country as government troops step up attacks against separatist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers). The Defence Ministry has directed the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) to ban the sale of all telecom services in the north and east by third parties to prevent the LTTE from ‘using the retail network for military operations’. The TRA said yesterday: ‘The Defence Ministry has asked us to tell the operators to stop selling telecom equipment and services like pre-paid cards and new connections to people in the north and east.’ The TRC alleged that the Tigers had been using mobile networks to obtain information about Sri Lankan military movements. Furthermore, the Defence Ministry added in a statement, that: ‘having considered all national security related issues [we] arrived at this decision in order to safeguard the interests of the general public.’ The directive was issued after an investigation found that the LTTE had ‘penetrated into the distribution network of retailers of telecom products and were using them for terrorist activities’. The probe covered activities of all distributors of telecom products currently in operation in the region, according to the Defence Ministry. The release went on to say that: ‘We unearthed a major conspiracy that would have had a serious impact on the civilian population. It was averted in the nick of time…The LTTE was also on the brink of receiving details of VIP movements via this channel and we were able to avoid this major catastrophe due to timely action.’ In the light of these developments the TRC instructed telecom service providers to immediately cease the sale of their products through unauthorised third parties and to take adequate measures to make available their services without any interruption through their own distribution network or through distributors approved by the Defence Ministry.
In January, authorities restored mobile services to the eastern region after it was blacked out for several weeks due to military operations. Mobile services in the north were restored in December 2006 after being out of service for at least six months due to the conflict, which has claimed around 4,000 lives in the past 15 months.