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Battle for Mullaithivu


An armoured carrier with troops in Kilinochchi

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.

Sri Lanka's 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 1991.

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.

Again triumphant

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 further south.

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. line.

Supplies

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 the causeway.

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.

Turn clear

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 declared. 

"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 Murasumoddai.

"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 Murasumoddai.

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 Akkarayankulam.

Less intact

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 Tigers vacated.

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 Leader.

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 guerrilla warfare.

"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 terrain.

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  Paranthan-Puthukkudiyirupu-Mullaithivu Road 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 Elephant Pass."

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 supplies."

"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.


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