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Mode shift on the northern frontline


Walk through relief- Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad, Flanked by ICRC Head of delegation Castella and Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona walk through the ICRC warehouse, after inspecting the Indian relife supplies.  Photo by Amantha Perera

Evidence of Tigers using roads as runways

Mankulam too dangerous for relief convoys

More Indian relief an option

All out offensive in the north after Pooneryn

By Amantha Perera

 

 

It is not yesterday that the ethnic conflict manifested itself in cyber space. For over a decade both parties have used the internet as a tool. The Tigers pioneered the effort but have of late seen the government catch up and catch up fast with a heap of websites, official and otherwise, matching the pro-Tiger outlets. In the last few weeks while pro-Tiger outlets have visibly gone slow on divulging details, their government counterparts have gone in the opposite direction.

With news of Pooneryn coming under government control after a lapse of 15 years on November 15, the internet social networking site Facebook saw enthusiastic Sri Lankans launching their own campaign.

A32 - Road for peace

"Dear Sri Lankans! Please use National Flag as your profile picture during this week as it has been named as a "Ranaviru Week" to honour the brave soldiers who liberated Pooneryn (Hence A32 road - the Road for Peace). Show your love towards our Mother Lanka!" one post read and by mid-week as the government launched its own commemorations, thousands had joined the campaign on Facebook. The number was 4500 by the weekend.

On November 14 night soldiers from Task Force One (TF1) had begun their final assault on Pooneryn, the strategic town located close to the southern shores of the Killali lagoon which served as an important boat station as well as a cause-way.

The strategy employed by the forces has been seen on many occasions in the current phase of the Eelam War - troops out-flanking important Tiger locations on the northwestern Wanni. This time soldiers from 12 Gamunu Watch (12 GW) and 10 Gajaba Regiment (10 GR) reached Nallur, an important village south of  Pooneryn on the B69 Pooneryn-Paranthan road, by early morning of November 15. By accessing the B69, troops had cut-off the only vehicle worthy  road linking Pooneryn with other parts  in the Wanni.

From Nallur, the troops then moved the 10 kms to Pooneryn and later that day the army said that troops had also gained control of the last stretch of the A 32 between Chempankundu and Pooneryn and by midweek they had cleared the areas north of Pooneryn, towards the vital Kalmunai Point, on the northern edges of the narrow Pooneryn peninsula.

Call to lay down arms.

Soon after Pooneryn was brought under control  Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka personally informed President Mahinda Rajapakse, who in an impromptu national speech called on the Tigers to lay down arms. It was Rajapakse's second such request to the Tigers to disarm in as many weeks following a similar call during the budget.

The loss of Pooneryn has been a painful memory for the government military; it is listed among the worst debacles including the loss of Elephant Pass and Mulaithivu before that. The Tigers were in control of Pooneryn till last weekend, after the defence complex there was dismantled after the Tigers attacked in November 11, 1993. The military lost 650 personnel in the Pooneryn battle, over 230 of them listed as missing in action.

Crucial strategic points

Pooneryn and the Nagatevanthurai jetty just north east were crucial, strategic logistics points.  It was a boat and ferry point that linked the northern Jaffna across the shallow Killali lagoon. Just four days before troops established control of Pooneryn, a man in fact swam across the lagoon to government controlled Jaffna.

It was on November 3, that Lt. Gen. Fonseka made it public that the army was trying to open a new main supply route along the A32, Mannar-Pooneryn road. The comments came as the Army's 57th Division was facing stiff Tiger resistance on the south western flanks of Kilinochchi where troops have battled Tigers on the Vannerikulam-Akkarayankulam axis since late August.

However when TF 1 was inducted in July 2007, its objective was to clear the A32. Control of the A32 will allow the government to supply Jaffna and also make it possible to bolster supplies and men on the north-western parts of Wanni from Jaffna.

There is also the matter of Kalmunai Point as an artillery position. The Tigers have used Kalmunai Point to position artillery and fire across the narrow Killali lagoon to Jaffna and even at Palaly. The Tiger 130 mm artillery guns do have an effective range of 27 km that can be enhanced to over 30 km. In one such incident during the night of April 23, 2007, the Tigers fired artillery into the Palaly area before two propeller driven Zlin aircraft dropped several bombs.

No Tiger artillery guns or mortar launchers were recovered and reports in the fortnight before Pooneryn was gained by troops said that the guns had been moved north east of Paranthan to newer locations where they could target troops in the north as well as those advancing on the southern flanks of Wanni.

Analysts felt that the momentum of gaining Pooneryn was likely to carry government troops further into Tiger held areas. "The loss of Pooneryn will weaken the offensive capability (of the Tigers) and present the troops as a bigger target," Sri Lankan terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna attached to the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore said.

There was also speculation that government troops would also try to mount pressure on the  narrow (11 km) Killali/Muhamalai/Nagarkovil FDL. And as if on cue fighting was reported along the line almost since the day Pooneryn fell.

However, unlike with Pooneryn, when the Tigers did not release any details, they said that they have been able to thwart consecutive advances by government forces from the northern line.

Within the first 48 hrs of losing Pooneryn, the Tigers said that they had thrice prevented government forces from breaking out and advancing on the northern line. TamilNet quoting Tiger officials said that over 100  soldiers had been killed and over 200 injured.

"According to the Tigers, the SLA has attempted to break the LTTE FDL three times on Monday and once in the morning of Tuesday. All the attempts were thwarted, the Tigers said. The SLA continued artillery and Multi-Barrel Rocket Launcher (MBRL) fire towards Vadamaarachchi East, Iyakkachchi, Paranthan, Kugnchup-Paranthan, Kumarapuram and the suburbs of Kilinochchi throughout the morning," TamilNet that had remained silent on the battles in Pooneryn said on November 19.

The Defence Ministry meanwhile said  troops had advanced the 500 metres that separated government defences and Tiger trench lines at Muhamalai by November 20 morning. It said that the November 15 gaining of Pooneryn also witnessed a momentum shift.

Army shifts mode of operation

 "Army shifted its mode of operations from active defence to all out offensive in the northern theatre on Saturday (Nov. 15) by running at the LTTE's forward defence lines (FDL) in Muhamalai and Kilaly . Heavy clashes prevailed in the area for five consecutive days , as the terrorists made a desperate attempt to halt the army advance."

It said that senior Tigers Theepan, Muhundan and Jerry were leading Tiger cadres in Muhamalai. Two weeks back the Ministry said that Theeban was training cadres at a secret location in Wanni to counter attack troops.

The 55th Division is stationed in the narrower Nagarkovil stretch while the 53rd is stationed at the wider, about 8 km, Killali/Muhamalai stretch. The two are separated  by the Nagarkovil loch. The mechanised infantry division (MID) is also based along the northern FDL. The MID has been placed to allow greater speeds and manoeuverability for troops in the arid, flat and sand dune filled terrain.

The Tigers are believed to have placed around 700 cadres in the Muhamalai FDL with an initial three tier defensive trench structure.

National front

The Kilali/Muhamalai/Nagarkovil line, refereed to by troops stationed there as the "Jathika Peramuna" (National Front), is narrow and densely packed with defence personnel.

Government troops and Tigers have clashed heavily on three occasions along the northern FDL in the last two years, twice in late 2006 (August and October) and once earlier this year (April) resulting in heavy damages. Troops gained about 1 km into the Tiger line in the 2006 clashes.

The army said that troops had been able to breach the heavy Tiger defences, packed in the narrow FDL. "The fire fighting resulted in the loss of more than 50 Tiger terrorists to the outfit and a similar number or more sustained serious injuries, according to eye-witness accounts and technical sources. Casualties caused to the heroic war heroes were comparatively very low in the fighting that lasted for a few days continuously," it said last week.

B69 road used as runway

Troops who had secured Pooneryn had also started moving south east along the B69, and midway through they came across an interesting discovery - a section of the road bore markings of a basic runway.

"The airstrip is about 200m in length. The terrorists have demarcated a stretch of the B-69 Pooneryn-Paranthan main road, which is also believed to be used as an emergency landing strip by the LTTE," the Defence Ministry said of the stretch in the Nivil area about 14 km west of Paranthan. The strip was located between the 15th and 18th km posts.

The strip is also the first occasion a clearing that can be used by aircraft has been located north of Paranthan. The Tigers have only once flown the Zlins north of Kilinochchi, that was the April 2007 attack over Palaly. All other attacks have been on targets south of the Wanni.

There has been speculation that despite the presence of at least five known clearings resembling narrow airstrips, that the Tigers could be using road stretches in the Wanni interior as runways. There has never been any concrete evidence to prove that the Tigers had used the airstrips to take off and land the Zlin 143 aircraft or that they had used roads.

"While the imagery does not confirm the airstrips are in use, the investment of significant resources suggests the LTTE has developed facilities that can serve air logistics needs at a critical time in its three-decade war with the Sri Lankan state," Jane's Defence Weekly that had suggested that the Tigers may use the air capacity for gun running and had made at least one attempt to smuggle in artillery rounds  via an air route said.  It said that at least two of the air strips visible on satellite images showed that they could handle cargo flights.

However the discovery last week shows that the roads had come into play with the Tiger air wing, in what manner, only time will tell.

Indian relief to the Wanni

The much anticipated relief from India is now waiting to be trucked to the Wanni by ICRC.

The 1700 MT of supplies that included food, bedding, clothes and hygiene items was officially handed over to the ICRC by Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad at the ICRC's warehouse complex in Kelaniya last week. From the government, Commissioner General of Essential Services S.B. Divaratne and Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona attended the ceremony.

The relief is likely to travel to Vavuniya and then to the Wanni mid this week. The ICRC trucks that will be checked and sealed at Kelaniya are likely to turn east of Puliyankulam about 12 km north of  Omanthai, reach Oddusudan, Nedunkerni and then reach the IDPs remaining at Visvamadhu, Daramapuram, Putukudiruppu and Nedunkerni. Divaratne said that no convoys would proceed up to Mankulam due to heavy fighting. "No convoys can go up to Mankulam due to fighting," he said.

Despite taking over the Indian relief consignment, the ICRC did not place personnel at the all important Omanthai cross over point last week. Paul Castella, its new head of delegation said that it was seeking new arrangements from the government and the Tigers over the procedures at Omanthai.

"Until a clear arrangement is found, the ICRC will continue to approach both parties to the conflict on a case by case basis to facilitate the movement of ambulances and the transfer of dead bodies," he said. ICRC officials said that a similar request was likely to be made to move the Indian relief supplies.

Castella said that the ICRC was planning to take the Indian relief consignment in the coming weeks to the Wanni.

The UN, that was also planning to move its sixth convoy last week said that there were security concerns on the roads used by the convoys. "Tensions remain high in and around Puliyankulam since confrontations in the area on November 11, followed by further intermittent shelling towards the area," the Inter Agency Standing Committee said last week.

However the sixth convoy did in fact travel to the Wanni on November 21 morning. The Indian High Commissioner Prasad said that India would assess the situation and the needs in the Wanni and decide on future relief supplies.


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