By Amantha Perera
This column is a dedicated to the man who
made me a journalist - Lasantha
Any war anywhere will spawn its own symbols.
There is the US soldiers raising the flag in
Iwo Jima of WWII or the small girl, her
clothes burnt off, running naked from the
Vietnam War or the statue of Saddam Hussein
coming down during the most recent war.
own conflict is no different and has had its
own set of symbols and images. One that has
endured for close to two decades is the
image of the improvised bulldozer that the
Tigers used to ram through the southern
defences of Elephant Pass Base (EPS) in July
The story of how the armour plated vehicle
was stopped is now legend. Corporal Gamini
Kularatne prevented the vehicle from
entering the camp by climbing on to it and
lobbing a hand grenade through a hatch.
Gamini who later became famous as 'Hasalaka
Gamini' died in the process.
But the vehicle became a symbol of the
army's courage and was given pride of place,
till the EPS garrison fell into Tiger hands
in 1998. Then it was cast aside on the A9 on
the southern shores of the EPS causeway.
During the ceasefire, many a visitor from
the south stopped at the vehicle, tilting
slightly on its side. Some wrote on the
earthmoving machine, others gazed at it and
the Tigers soon left a name board on the
side that said it was symbol of its own
attack on EPS and how one Kesari died in it.
Last week after more than a decade,
government soldiers stood on top of the
vehicle, once again triumphant. Troops from
Task Force I (TF1) had began advancing north
on the A9 highway from Paranthan and reached
Kurinchantivu and Tamilamadam area where the
bulldozer lay since 1991.
The movement towards the northern Tiger FDL
that runs from Killali through Muhamalai to
Nagarakovil was matched by troops of the
53rd Killali/Muhamalai and 55th Nagarkovil
who moved on the Tiger defences from the
north and by January 6 extended their line
by around 500 m. They had reached the second
defensive line maintained by the Tigers
along the axis.
The Tigers have constructed a three tier
defence trench with bunkers and connecting
trenches with the approaches heavily mined.
The twin advance was aimed at flushing out
the Tigers from the northern FDL. TF1 is
moving north and the Defence Ministry said
that the aim was to push the Tigers towards
the east, on to the small isthmus of
Nagarkovil that links with Mullaithivu and
The Tigers have maintained high cadre levels
and resources along the 11 km. northern axis
and has at no time compromised strengths and
has resisted large army forays in October
2006 and April 2008. Some Tamil writers have
said that there were as much as 3,500 to
4,000 cadres along the axis by end 2008.
That is a strong concentration on the 11 km.
But faced with the option of being
sandwiched between the advancing divisions
from the north and TF1, some Tamil websites
last week reported that the Tigers had
already begun falling back. Some said that
the new concentration was at Puthukkadu
Junction north of Elephant Pass. The Tigers
would have to seriously re-evaluate holding
on to the line especially the 8 kms. between
Killali and Muhamalai, where supplies will
be hard and evacuation even harder if the
TF1 reaches the northern boundary of the EPS
garrison, that lies on the northern side of
They might be holding on to the narrower
(3km.) Nagarkovil area which still had a
direct road from Mullaithivu running along
the coast and where no government troops are
nearby. That road however will be hard to
use during times of heavy rain.
As the weekend ended the army said that EPS
was about to fall - "As the final push for
LTTE strongholds of Mullaithivu and the
Elephant Pass is on, 53 and 55 Division
troops after capture of Pallai and
Soranpattu areas are now marching towards
the Elephant Pass past Ilankattu as at
Friday (9) morning, the Army Headquarters
"It is believed the entire road patch
between Muhamalai and Paranthan on the A-9
Highway would soon turn clear with the fall
of the Elephant Pass at any moment from now
onwards," it said on January 9 morning.
That afternoon troops reached EPS and once
again President Mahinda Rajapakse made the
announcement on national TV.
By January 6 the Defence Ministry said that
troops from the 53rd Division were operating
about 1 km. north of the important Pallai.
If troops gain on Pallai as the Ministry has
predicted, and move to Iyakachchchi
junction, Tigers will lose the only road
that connects the western Killali/Muhamalai
land mass with the narrower Nagarkovil and
Mullaithivu in the east.
Cutting of withdrawal route
The same tactic that was seen in the gaining
of Killinochchi is once again being employed
by the security forces - that of enveloping
the Tigers and cutting of withdrawal routes
or reducing them to a minimum. The 53rd and
the 58th Division better known as TF1 will
meet on the A9, in EPS area if the current
north/south double twin thrust continued.
By January 8 morning troops had reached
Pallai, just above Iyakachchi. Pallai and
Iyakachchi also have the best drinkable
water sources in EPS.
Ironically, the thrust patterns used by the
army are uncannily similar to those employed
by the Tigers. When they overran EPS, the
Tigers had cadres who landed on the eastern
side of EPS crossed the Chundikulam Lagoon
that separates Killali/Muhamalai and
Nagarkovil, and cut into the A9, restricting
supplies on the A9.
Important Tiger locations
When they moved on Killinochchi in 1998, a
fierce thrust was launched from north,
through Paranthan and east of Paranthan.
TF1 has also begun advancing on the A 35
highway that links Mullaithivu with
Paranthan and runs through Visvamadhu,
Darmapuram and Putukudiyiruppu (PTK),
important Tiger locations as well as areas
where tens of thousands of displaced remain.
Heavy fighting was reported at Murasumoddai
from January 5. In fact on January 4
Tamilnet quoting Tiger sources said that the
Tigers had beaten back an assault on
"Battle formations of 58 Division who have
continued their offensive march further
eastwards after capturing Paranthan, entered
Murasumoddai township despite stiff
resistance given by the LTTE terrorists for
the last few days," the Defence Ministry
said on January 7.
The Ministry said that the assault had been
two pronged with troops advancing on the A35
while another thrust came from the south,
moving parallel to the A 35.
Newer trench line
The Tigers are now reportedly constructing a
newer trench line along the eastern bund of
the Iranamadu tank extending north towards
the Chudikulam lagoon cutting across the A35
at the second mile post near Murasumoddai
and south of the tank as well. There is an
old road that runs parallel to the A9 east
of the new trench line allowing Tigers to
move up and down.
The trench line came under attack in the
Murasumoddai area on January 4 and had been
attacked at three other locations north and
south of the Iranamadu tank on January 5.
This was while TF1 was moving on
The move on Murasumoddai appears to be
thrust along the A 35 and on its side,
something that was witnessed in Killinochchi
as well. Journalists who visited
Killinochchi and Paranthan on January 4 said
that fighting on the A9 appeared to have
begun in earnest from Murugandi, that lies
about 12 km south of Killinochchi on the A9.
It was near Murugandi that troops from the
57 Division who had been moving through
areas west of the A9 till then cut into the
highway while other formations from the same
division moved along the same axis through
Despite the fighting the A9 appeared more or
less intact, there was one shell that had
landed right in the middle of the highway
near Murugandi and remained unexploded.
Troops were trying to remove it as
journalists passed. The road however was
motorable by heavy vehicles up to Paranthan.
The sides of the roads had been cleared for
about 30 m.
Killinochchi however was deserted except for
the troops. One journalist who had been part
of a similar visit in 1996 said that it was
very much the same except for the new
buildings the Tigers had put up.
The civilians told the journalists that they
had fled when the Tigers were not allowing
them to leave to safer areas from
Killinochchi and had returned once the
The Tigers did develop Killinochchi as the
showcase of its de facto administration with
the assumed vestiges of an administration.
The Peace Secretariat, the political
headquarters, a new court premises where the
old one lay in tatters, police headquarters
and others like forestry, education and
women's offices were all in Killinochchi.
Escaped major damage
Some of the buildings had escaped major
damage, while others, mainly on the side of
the road had been hit. Roofs and door
frames on most buildings appeared to have
been removed by the withdrawing Tigers.
Defence analysts observed that the Tigers
may have had limits on their defence of
Killinochchi, despite the bravado. They did
put up stiff resistance on several occasions
both north and south of the town since it
came firmly between the crosshairs of the
government forces last August.
"LTTE had probably a planned time delay or
casualty limit or both to hold on to
Killinochchi. After that they have done a
classical exfiltration exercise. Mullaithivu
also will have these self imposed limits. It
is surprising they had removed the roofs and
every conceivable item before pulling the
cadres out," the former head of intelligence
of the Indian Peace Keeping Force and
currently an associate of the South Asia
Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for
China Studies, R. Hariharan told The Sunday
The limits on the Tigers may have been
caused by disrupted supply lines that would
dictate priority on the use of firepower.
Failed to replenish
"The maritime supplies to LTTE were
disrupted by the Sri Lankan navy working
withforeign governments especially India. As
such, the LTTE failed to replenish its
material losses and resume its vital
supplies. In a frontal assault, LTTE could
not take on the military using artillery and
mortars," Rohan Gunaratna the head of the
International Center for Political Violence
and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at Nanyang
Technological University in Singapore said.
Gunaratna however felt that government
troops would have to keep up the momentum in
Mullaithivu, terrain that would suit
"The LTTE are the masters in guerrilla and
terrorist operations. The LTTE will have an
upper hand in Mullaithivu - the terrain
favours them unless government invests more
in generating high quality intelligence and
conducting small operations. If the
government does not maintain its operational
tempo, the LTTE will strike both the south
and harass government troops inKillinochchi
and elsewhere in the northeast."
The former IPKF intelligence head was
skeptical whether the Tigers could defend
Mullaithivu despite the advantage of
Facing less troops
"On the question of defending Mullaithivu,
frankly I am sceptical whether he (Pirapaharan)
would defend it as whole heartedly as he did
in Killinochchi. He might try and hit TF-1
advancing on the
because tactically he would be facing less
troops. If Puthukkudiyirupu falls
Mullaithivu would become untenable just as
it happened to Killinochchi after Paranthan
fell. Mullaithivu has the lagoon on one side
and the sea on the other. So it has got a
narrow front for assaulting troops as in
The army is relying on its superior
firepower and overwhelming numbers to
decimate the Tigers in Mullaithivu. Army
Commander Sarath Fonseka has said that a
force of 50,000 would be used as an equation
of 12 battalion strengths.
A post released by Oxford Analitica, a
network of academics based at the Oxford
University said last week that fighting in
Mullaithivu would be hard.
"They (Tigers) will now be fighting on their
most favoured terrain: Mullaithivu's thick
jungles along the eastern coast, where the
rebels bring in their weapons and other
"Tough terrain - Whereas the more open
terrain of western Wanni and the areas west
of Killinochchi have favoured the recently
modernised Sri Lanka Army's flanking
manoeuvres and heavy weapons, including air
power, the terrain in Mullaithivu works to
the advantage of the LTTE. The vast, thick
jungle limits the military's manoeuvrability
and the effectiveness of airpower and heavy
weapons, while the canopy affords the LTTE
greater concealment. As such, the fighting
to come is likely to be protracted and
involve heavy casualties."
"Weapons of the weak - The military still
has to contend with LTTE guerilla and
terrorist attacks in other parts of the
island, especially the east and Colombo.
Within hours of the official announcement of
Killinochchi's capture, a bomb exploded
outside the Sri Lanka Air Force
Headquarters, demonstrating the LTTE's
ability to penetrate Colombo's most secure
military areas. The LTTE have in the past
fallen back on such tactics after suffering
major reverses - such as their prior loss of
Killinochchi in 1996 - and they can be
expected to do so again," it said.
The Army Commander feels that government
forces hold all the A's and the rhetoric of
withdrawal by the Tigers is smokescreen in
the face of an inevitable loss.
"The LTTE not only lost 95 percent of the
land it held but also lost within the last
one year 8000 terrorists out of whom the Sri
Lanka Army knows the names of 4000," he said
last week during a TV interview.