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Swarnam enters the fray a year after fleeing the east


Swarnam's base in Verugal that was
captured by the army

The battle for Adampan

By Amantha Perera

LTTE top ranker, Swarnam has a score to settle with government forces. Almost a year back, he was forced out of his much vaunted Swarnam base in the Verugal area north of Vaharai and had to flee the east, injured.

The departure of Swarnam in early January 2007 from the eastern battle field was the precursor to what was to come - the complete withdrawal of the Tigers.

'Colonel' Swarnam is back in the news again. According to radio messages intercepted by the security forces he is commanding Tiger cadres in the Adampan and Parapakandal areas north of Uliyankulam.

No clear winner

There is so far no clear winner in the Adampan battle ground, despite clashes taking place almost weekly since a year back. The government military has found advancing painstakingly slow, with the Tigers hell bent on holding on to the forward defences on either side of the Wanni. Though the Tigers have slowed down the army's progress, they have  been unable to beat back advancing formations and put at least a temporary lull to the forays. Both sides have bolstered personnel and resources, not willing to be found wanting later on.

According to many, the northern theatre is just warming up and what has been witnessed since mid last year - since the fall of Toppigala, may be just the entre.

Government troops have been trying to advance towards Adampan almost on a daily basis now. It was during one such advance that Tiger shells fell on the St. Anthony's Church near the Tallady army camp on February 12. The Tigers said that the artillery fire was part of their counter attack in an attempt to foil troops  moving north from  three different locations. The fire was directed at the camp and the causeway to prevent reinforcements, and the church on the camp perimeter got hit.

A week later, a similar tactic was adopted by the forces who began advancing north and north east from three locations, north of the Vavuniya-Mannar A-30 highway. Troops had commenced moving around 4 a.m.  from Uliyankulam, Palaikuli and Parapakandal on February 18.

Tactics

The tactic of small troop formations attacking Tiger bunker lines in the early hours of the dawn was witnessed on two consecutive weeks along the Muhamalai line a fortnight back. Those advances were backed by strikes using T55 tanks. However there were no reports of tanks backing troops in Mannar.

According to the army and the Defence Ministry troops gained considerable ground during the February 18 advances. "In the northeast of Uliyankulam, troops engaged terrorists' defence between 5.30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and captured the defences line comprising three bunkers, one strong point and about 600m long trench line," the Ministry said adding that 10 Tigers were killed.

The Tigers however said that they had thwarted the advances and killed as many as 10 soldiers. According to pro-Tiger news outlets, the Tiger operational command has reported that Tiger snipers have inflicted heavy damage on troops.

The snipers have been moved from the northern Muhamalai front according to some reports. The army says that movement is slow, not necessarily due to snipers but more due to booby traps and landmines that litter the path leading to Tiger front lines.

The February 18 clashes went on for over 12 hours, from early morning till around 7 p.m. and troops had been backed by Kfir jets as well as MI-24 helicopter gunships.

Swarnam's return

Two days after the clashes Swarnam made his appearance. In the early hours of February 20, Tigers in small groups launched a fresh assault at troops who had moved forward, north of Uliyankulam, just two days before. Reports said that troops and Tigers clashed for over four hours between midnight February 19 and early hours of February 20. The Tigers had used the cover of early morning darkness to move in on troops.

Reports indicated that Tigers had tried to storm the newly established positions in small groups. They said at least nine such groups were reportedly engaged in the counter attack and were under the overall command of Swarnam. The attackers  had tried to dislodge troops from two main locations and were backed up by 122 mm artillery fire (it was 122mm artillery from the Palaikuli area, that lies south east of Adampan that fell on the church) and 81 mm mortar fire (the military had accused the Tigers of positioning a 81 mm mortar launcher in the Madhu Sanctuary area that lies east of Adampan).

A day after the assault, the Defence Ministry quoted the highest Tiger death toll in a day since the fall of the ceasefire when it said that at least 92 Tigers were killed in the fighting on February 20.

At least 30 had been killed during the Tiger counter attack, the Ministry said. And an additional 13 were killed when troops advanced further north from the positions gained on February 18 after the Tiger counter attack was put down. The Media Centre for National Security later confirmed the presence of Swarnam and another top leader - "It has been confirmed that LTTE leaders, Swarnam and Luxman led the attack," it said.

Top Tigers back

Swarnam's presence had been reported earlier as well along with a number of other top Tigers who had been moved to the FDLs. He reportedly hails from the Mannar District and has been relocated there late last year along with other senior commanders like Bahnu, and Vidusha who heads the female Tiger military formations named the Malathi brigade.

Last year he was tasked with a similar endeavour in the east, that of defending Vaharai, Verugal and Echchilampaththu - specifically all areas north of the Panichchankerni bridge on the A15 Valachchenai-Muttur highway. The Tigers had inducted seniors like Bahnu and Balraj into the east when the government assault commenced, but by January 2007 only Swarnam was left.

Vaharai fell in the third week of January last year. Two weeks before Swarnam's base had come under an air attack and he had disappeared from Tiger radio transmissions. He was believed to have been injured and relocated to the Wanni. He travelled to Mulaithivu by boat from the Verugal coast.

The tactic of targeting Tiger area commanders before the frontal assaults begin has been witnessed in the Mannar front as well. This was when Shanmuganathan Ravishankar alias Charles, the head of Tiger internal intelligence was killed by a deep penetration team at Palamadhu on January 5. There were also reports that another Tiger top runger, Theepan who now oversees the Muhamalai area had also disappeared off the radio networks after a recent air strike.

Silent over clashes

If Swarnam did in fact lead the counter attack, the Tigers have remained silent on the February 20 clashes. Then it would also mean that elite Tiger formations too may have been involved.

Swarnam has led the Jayanthan Brigade in the past - in the north as well in the east. Most notably he led cadres from the brigade in April 2004 when they moved from Verugal all the way to Toppigala, crossing the main Habarana-Valachchenai highway at Punnani, pursuing cadres loyal to renegade, Karuna. When he came under attack last year, he was reportedly mustering between 300 to 400  battle hardened cadres to face the government onslaught. The Tiger defence petered off soon after Swarnam dropped off the airwaves last year.

Cadres surrender

The Tigers had stationed elite cadres behind the main front lines, made up of a three tiered bunker formation. Government troops have said that the frontal defences were mainly under female cadres, or raw new recruits. On January 31, nine Tigers surrendered to troops at Murukan, on the A30, just east of Giant Tank. One had swum across the tank before surrendering to troops. What is of importance is the age of the surrendees, which ranged from 17 to 61.

The nine were 61, 52, 35, 32, 28, 27, 24, 23 and 17 years old, respectively.

Last week's battles could be the start of the Tigers launching their experienced units at the forces. Smaller clashes were reported from the north of Welioya, west of the Omanthai crossover point in Iranai Illapakulam area and the Muhamalai Killali line.

The air force also carried out raids of Tiger artillery positions in Mannar and Mulaithivu. The artillery pieces were being increasingly used to counter troops movements and operations in Mannar and the Welioya sectors.

On Friday, February 22, the air force carried out a similar raid in the morning - "Sri Lanka Air Force jet aircraft this morning (22) around 8.15successfully targeted and destroyed a major LTTE Sea Tiger terrorist camp located in an inland waterway about 9km south of Devil's Point in Kiranchi west of Kilinochchi on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka. According to intelligence sources, the Sea Tiger terrorist camp consisted of boats used on suicide missions and seaattacks while also serving as a transit point for goods and other items," the MCNS said.

Counter attacks

The Tigers said that the raid had hit a civilian area: - "Eight civilians, including three pre-school children were killed and 10 more were injured, four of them critically," they said.

In the midst of the clashes in the north, the Tigers once again struck in Buttala when three soldiers were killed in Dambakotte on the Buttala Kataragama road around 11 a.m. on February 20.

Despite the influx of security and weapons after the series of attacks starting from the January 16 morning claymore attack at Helegama, none of the suspected attackers have been killed or apprehended.

The attackers in small groups were suspected to be moving inside the jungle treks and some of the attacks indicate this. Civilians in the areas also suspect that the attackers may be moving closer to streams and pathways that run close to them.

Soon after last week's attack villagers from Helegama, Gonaganara and Dambakotte said that they had seen groups of strangers moving in the jungles.

Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group (ICG) last week said that most of the blame for the resumption of heavy fighting lay with the Tigers.

"Much of the blame for the resumption in violence lies with the LTTE; its ceasefire violations and abuses of the population under its control pushed the government towards war. The Tiger strategy was to shore up internal support by provoking a Sinhala nationalist reaction; it worked, although the insurgents may come to regret their approach," it said in a report titled Sri Lanka's Return To War: Limiting The Damage released last week.

Under fire

The ICG and its Head, Gareth Evans have come under heavy criticism from the government after Evans spoke of the Right to Protect during last year's Neelan Thiruchelvam memorial speech. The Rama Mani controversy also began from the speech and Mani's role in getting down Evans.

"President Mahinda Rajapakse has also overplayed his hand. Relying on support from Sinhala extremists, he has let them set an agenda that allows only for a military approach," the report said. It added, despite government victories since December 2005, it was still not clear how it planned to win over a population that had been under Tiger rule for over a decade.

"The military and much of the government leadership believe they can defeat or permanently weaken the Tigers by the end of 2008. The LTTE has been badly hurt over the past 18 months: it has lost the areas it controlled in the Eastern Province; its arms routes have been disrupted; hundreds, perhaps thousands of its fighters have been killed; and senior commanders are now vulnerable to targeted elimination, either from air force bombs or special forces. But the Tigers remain a formidable fighting force.

"While the army has been inching forward in the north, they are fighting back from well-defended positions. Even assuming the Tigers can be defeated militarily, it remains unclear how the government would pacify and control the large Tamil-speaking areas in the north that have been under LTTE domination for a decade or more.

'Worst phase'

"The current phase of the war is likely to be the worst," the ICG warned. "The current conflict is worse than what preceded the 2002 ceasefire. The government's counter-insurgency campaign is more brutal and indiscriminate, the terror and criminal activities of its Tamil proxy forces more extensive and blatant, and the role of chauvinistic Sinhala ideologues in government more pronounced. The suspected involvement of pro-government forces in the assassinations of Tamil politicians is particularly disturbing. The Tigers have fully militarised life in areas under their control and returned to brutal attacks on Sinhalese civilians, intent on provoking even worse retaliation."

The human toll in the last two years is nothing like what was witnessed before the truce, even at the height of fighting.

Between 2006 and 2007 the military says its killed at least 4,800 Tigers and lost 1,200 of their own. This year, the figure quoted by the military is that 1,200 Tigers and little over 100 armed forces personnel have been killed.

There are no corroborated figures of civilian casualties, but as the ICG report suggested, a conservative figure of 1,500 deaths since 2006 is by and large accepted. It may very well be more. In the first six weeks of this year alone at least 180 civilians were killed according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.


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