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World Affairs









Trench war looms in the Wanni

Arms recovered from Tiger suicide cadres
after last week's Vavuniya attack

By Amantha Perera

IN the documentation of Eelam War IV, August 26 would be noted as the day that indicated a significant shift in the fighting, especially by the Tigers.

It was an important day for the Tigers and was known as such in the Wanni. In leaflets and letters the organisation had distributed among the Wanni populace earlier, August 26 was the deadline given to civilians to complete constructing bunkers. The Tigers wanted civilians to build bunkers wherever possible - behind houses, at junctions, offices, playgrounds, in fact all over. The Wanni was being turned into an open battle field with civilians called up for military training and former cadres being issued notice to rejoin.

The significance of August 26 would be re-emphasised in  no uncertain terms that night when the Tigers launched an air attack on the Trincomalee Naval Headquarters. It signified a change in the Tiger fighting mode. Up until then the Tigers had fallen back deeper into the Wanni when challenged by government forces moving on four fronts along the southern Wanni frontline - Task Force I on the A32, the 57 Division on the Thunukkai/Mallavi line, Task Force II in Palamoddai and the 59 Division in the Welioya sector. The other significant theatre at Muhamalai had remained deadlocked since August 2006 with the two sides clashing thrice in August and October 2006, and this April.

Fighting erupts

Five days after the air raid heavy fighting erupted in a three mile stretch between Vannerikulam and Akkarayankulam tanks north of Thunukkai. The fighting was fierce and intense, according accounts by both parties. The Tigers had dug deep trenches linking the two tanks  using the waterways and had dug in for the long haul. Two senior rankers - Theeban, who formerly led operations in the Muhamalai sector, and Bhanu had been placed in the area to lead the cadres.

Theeban is also in charge of artillery units and there were reports that the Tigers may have moved a couple of large artillery pieces into the theatre and also to defend Kilinochchi.

Last week too there was more evidence that the Tigers had upped the ante considerably. Around 2.50 am on September 9 artillery fire rained down on the Wanni Security Forces Headquarters just south of Vavuniya town located on the eastern side of the A9.

The artillery was backed by mortar fire and a group of Tigers had sneaked into the camp through the Irrataperiyakulam jungles that border on the eastern side. The runway and air field that adjoin the camp also houses the vital Indra radar systems. A fence separates the air field from the army base.

Artillery and MBRL fire and shell fire erupted from within the headquarters as well as from other camps in Vavuniya. At 3.26 am, the radar screens detected an unauthorised blip that was heading south from the Wanni. Five minutes later another was detected. The Tiger Air Wing was airborne again and this time was flying into join ground attack backed by artillery fire.

The anti aircraft guns were also activated and tracers and anti aircraft fire streaked the air, similar to what took place over  Trincomalee on August 26. The army said that the main target of the coordinated attack was the radar systems. And the artillery fire was to distract. The radar system may have been the target for both the infiltrators and the Air Wing which could have dropped the homemade gravity bombs close to them if proper coordinates were relayed from the ground based infiltrators. Some reports said that the infiltrators were killed just 200m from the radar systems.

"Terrorists, intending to strike on the air force radar station continued to direct artillery rounds on the area, but radars and other vital stations escaped unaffected and remained intact. In the meantime, as the LTTE artillery rounds fell, two LTTE light air craft flew in on the Wanni Security Forces Headquarters complex and started dropping two bombs at about 3.30 am. Those bombs, contrary to terrorist expectations, fell on the officers'  mess area and another office complex in the area headquarters," the army said.

The Tigers' claim

The Tigers had fired at least 70 rounds of 120 mm artillery at the camp complex plus the shell fire.

The  Tigers said that the radar system was damaged. Two Indians who were at the base on work connected with the radar also sustained minor injuries. The infiltration team had cut through barbed wire from the sides of Irrataperiyakulam jungles and entered the camp. They probably used the Bangalore torpedoes that were later recovered by security forces to cut through the fences and clear mine paths.

Unconfirmed reports from Vavuniya said that a group of special forces men had detected the intruders well in advance but had pursued them in order to find out the aim of the infiltration. Eleven bodies of the infiltrators were later recovered along with arms, communication equipment and GPS devices indicating that some of them were artillery spotters, giving coordinates to guns firing from the Wanni.  They probably could have directed artillery fire towards the radar stations if the opportunity arose.

In advance

There were five women among the attackers, and they were attired in uniforms similar to those used by the army. One dead Tiger was seen wearing the dress code of the special forces even to the extent of wearing the black bandana, a special mark of the SF.

The team may have been inducted into the area well in advance, probably using Omanthai and then assembling for the operation thereafter with handlers providing the weapons and uniforms, going by tactics used by the Tigers in the past. The team however appeared to have been trained for the specific mission. The Tigers later released pictures of the team, but only 10 were posing with Velupillai Pirapaharan. The Tiger leader also participated in paying his respects to the Black Tigers where their garlanded  pictures were kept in front of empty coffins at a undisclosed location in the Wanni.

The ground battles also left 10 soldiers and one policeman killed, and scores more injured including at least five civilians. Most of them had been hit by artillery fire. A few houses in the adjoining village, Tekawatte, were also damaged by the intense artillery fire.

Government responds

In the meantime, the Tiger aircraft flew over the base, according to the Tigers and dropped the pay load of four bombs on the intended target - the radar and returned to base. Only two of the bombs had exploded.

The air force however told a different tale. A F-7 interceptor with air to air attack capacity took off from Katunayake and located one of the fleeing Tiger aircraft over the southeastern Mulaithivu jungles. According to Squadron Leader Sanjeewa Adikari, a senior officer at the flight control post at Katunayake,  the pilot of the jet identified the Tiger craft and opened fire using on-board guns and missiles. The Tiger aircraft was hit and went down.

The Tigers denied that any of the aircraft had crashed, but the denial came 12 hours after the government claim. But neither side has provided credible evidence to debunk the other. The air force has not released footage, either of the attack or others obtained later of the area where the aircraft supposedly went down.

Some air force sources say that the pilot of the F-7 had in fact sought permission from ground control to fire missiles at the Tiger aircraft and was permitted to do so. When he returned to base in Colombo he had been welcomed by senior officers. The aircraft is believed to have gone down in the Muliaveli area - that is thick jungle - and unmanned drones have been unable to gather any pictures due to thick foliage, according to air force sources. The mid-air confrontation took place around 3.50 am according to the air force.

The Muliaveli area lies ahead of the forward lines of the army's 59 Division and is just southeast of Mulaithivu proper.

Flight direction

The path taken by the Tiger aircraft over Mulaithivu and the interception location over Muliaveli indicates that it was flying on a north-easterly direction. If the aircraft were using the runways in Iranamadu or south of it the path needs to be more straight. The Tigers may be using an airstrip in the Mulaithivu area or as some have suggested a tarred road stretch. The Zlins do not require large and lengthy runways and 2km would do fine and that can be easily located in the Mulaithivu area.

This theory of the Tigers using a road has gained credence of late with press reports in the south suggesting that a captured Tiger operative has said as much quoting Keerthi, a top Tiger intelligence operative. So have other reports of foreign mercenaries flying the Zlins. That rumour was flying around blog sites and was based on the manoeuverability achieved by the pilots of the Zlins on top of the difficulties of  night flying.

Last week's air attack was the second successive in a 10 day span. But the Tigers have not deviated from what they have shown in the recent past, that they are loathe to risk the longer flights as they did in March and April 2007 over Colombo.

The last three attacks have been Welioya (April 27, 2008), Trincomalee (August 26, 2008) and Vavuniya (September 9, 2008). Areas close to Mulaithivu, and aircraft may have been airborne for little over 30 to 40 mins. The preference has been to keep the aircraft flying in areas on the eastern flank of the Wanni and according to the government security establishment the radar is the prime target because it has detected the flight very early.

Indian security analyst B. Raman has opined that even if the Vavuniya attack was a total success, its impact on the ground realities in the Wanni would not be heavy.

No threat

"Even if it is established that the radar has been severely damaged, if not destroyed, this should not affect the on-going ground operations of the Sri Lankan Army. The mastery of the skies enjoyed by the SLAF during day time ensures that the LTTE planes could not pose a threat to the troops engaged in battle. The absence of a radar would not also affect the punitive air strikes made repeatedly by the SLAF on LTTE-held positions.

"The successful Vavuniya raid would be a morale-booster for the LTTE cadres, but would not turn the tide of the battle against the armed forces," he wrote last week in the South Asia Analysis Group's updates.

In the overall scheme of things, the battles between Vannerikulam and Akkarayankulam two weeks back are far more significant than the two  attacks by the Tiger air wing with its limited capacity. The ground component of the Vavuniya attack is an indication of the Tigers' ability to carry out attacks in the south using suicide cadres, whose very nature entails that there need not be a retrieval or a get out plan. That will always be there as long as the Tigers remain a significant operational unit.

Soft targets

A similar scenario has been played out in the southeastern regions where periodic attacks beginning with the January 27 claymore at Helegama on a passenger bus have spelt the presence of Tigers who are committed to carrying out destabilising attacks on soft targets.

Last week the latest such from the area was reported when seven farmers were shot dead in the Ithamale area, close to Kotiyagala, an area that many suspect to be a haunt of the Tigers who are operating there. They are suspected to be operating from deep jungle areas in small groups.

It was only two weeks back that a group of Tigers infiltrating into the east from the Welioya frontlines in the Padaviya area were spotted and 10 in a group were later killed by special forces members. But the resistance in Thunukkai/Mallavi showed what the Tigers plan to do in the coming battles in the Wanni. The Tigers have placed cadres, experienced battle hardened in long trench lines with six feet high earth bunds with gun-holes and positions, at regular interval.

One has been witnessed running east from Vannerikulam and probably there are more such lines before Kilinochchi. They have used the streams running through the areas to build the trench lines. A similar trench is reportedly present in the eastern flank as well running west from the southern reaches of the Nayaru lagoon toward the Tanimuirippu tank.

Trench warfare is old as Napoleonic wars, when armies with limited manpower dug them to face large attacking forces and to limit the chances of being outflanked and outnumbered in open warfare.

The trench theoretically puts the onus on the attacking force to breakthrough, while those in the defensive trenches will wait till attacked. But if a trench line is broken or ruptured - the trenches usually run in three tiers with interconnecting links for communication, supplies and mobility - especially at one of the inter-connecting links, then there is serious trouble for those manning them.

Government forces with greater manpower and fire power feel that they can break the trenches. It will take time and effort, but they feel confident. The Tigers are staying put to fight.

Tigers can't afford to lose Kili - Karuna

The importance of Kilinochchi as the showcase of the organisation was weighing heavily on the Tigers, and may have  prompted them to defend the town, former LTTE eastern military head Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan alias Karuna told The Sunday Leader.

"Kilinochchi is an important place as far as the LTTE is concerned. The moment it falls, the LTTE would lose even the (little) support of the Tamil diaspora and Tiger sympathisers abroad. They collect money based on the fact that there is still a chance for the LTTE, as Kilinochchi is still under them. But, it will not be long before it falls. The military should not give LTTE time to regroup and reorganise. They should keep on attacking without harming the civilians," Karuna said.

IC intervention

He however observed that the chances of civilians moving out of the Wanni on their own were slim and that only international intervention could assure the Tigers' allowing them safe passage.   

"The Tigers will also not let the civilians get out of their territory. But, the international community should intervene in this issue and make sure that the civilians who are stuck in the area are freed."

Karuna also said that when he was part of the Tigers he was aware of supplies sent for civilians ultimately ending up with the Tigers.

"Those who worked for these humanitarian agencies were also linked to the Tigers. Therefore, most of the essential items only reached the Tigers and not the civilians."


He warned that with the relocation of UN and other international agencies present in the Wanni, the Tigers could use the absence of information and outsiders for propaganda purposes. "The government should be careful on this issue. If the international community believed the Tigers on this issue, then it will not be good for the government," he said.

"The actual victory would not be the military defeating the LTTE. The actual victory would be ensuring the safety of the civilians and also making sure that  fighting does not affect the civilians stuck there."

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