It probably is one of the narrowest, most
active, battle theatres around. The line of
control that stretches on either side of
Muhamalai, the 290 km post on the A9, is 11
km long, from Kilali on the west to
Nagarkovil on the east. It is splintered by
the Nagarkovil lagoon, and the western land
mass is widest at around 8km.
The boxed area has seen some of the
fiercest battles — it was in the same area
that Tigers and government troops fought
each other in August and October 2006. Eight
years ago it was the same area, a little bit
to the south from last week’s fighting,
where the Elephant Pass garrison was located
that witnessed the fall of the sprawling
army complex that had straddled the only
land link to the Jaffna peninsula at EPS.
On April 21, 2000, troops stationed at
the garrison received orders to fall back.
This was after four months of artillery and
mortar fire had culminated in Tigers
attacking Nagarkovil during the fourth week
of March 2000 which was followed by a series
of frontal and flank attacks from the east
on EPS and its supply routes.
Eight years and two days after the EPS
debacle, heavy fighting, probably the
heaviest since battles in the same area in
2006, broke out in the early hours of April
When the battles started or who started
the attacks were not very clear. The army
said that just after midnight on April 22,
the clashes started when the Tigers stormed
the army’s forward defence positions at
Kilali and Muhamalai. The Defence Ministry
said that battles started around 5 am on
April 23 when the Tigers stormed the lines.
Both versions talk of the same battles.
According to the army, small pockets of
Tigers began firing at army lines from
around midnight April 22 and the attacks
kept increasing. By 5 am Tigers in larger
numbers stormed the line backed by artillery
and mortar fire.
The Tigers said that fighting broke out
on several locations at Kilali and Muhamalai
around 3 am on April 23 when government
forces stormed the Tiger lines at several
different locations on the narrow swathe of
land. The Tigers said the military assault
on their lines was backed by artillery and
Unconfirmed reports said that the Tigers
had initiated the fighting by attacking the
army’s forward positions and the momentum of
beating back the first wave of attacks
carried the troops into the Tiger bunker
lines, where the heavy resistance started.
Field commanders speaking on national
television hinted that at least one division
may have attacked Tiger positions as a
pre-emptive move. They had earlier said that
they estimated that around 1500 Tigers were
placed along the Muhamalai FDL.
The commanders also indicated that small
group operations that dominated attacks on
the Tiger FDL thus far since the battles in
August and October 2006, would now be
changed, and large troop formations could
get involved in operations in the Jaffna
Other reports said that the two divisions
moving south on a parallel axis on either
side of the A9 intended to link up, but that
there was a slow down on the western side of
the A9 where troops were bogged down leading
to Tiger artillery fire.
Heavy and brutal
The Tigers had also indicated over radio
transmissions that they were falling back in
the face of army advances on April 23 early
morning before artillery fire opened up on
the troops in the Tiger bunker lines which
were also heavily booby trapped and mined.
The fighting was heavy and brutal on
either side of the A9. When fighting ended
the body count ran into hundreds.
According to official reports released by
the several government outlets including the
Media Centre for National Security (MCNS)
and the Defence Ministry, 43 soldiers were
killed and 38 listed as missing in action by
April 23 evening. Five of the missing
reported back, while the Tigers also handed
over 28 bodies.
They said that over 150 Tigers were
suspected killed during 11 of hours fighting
and scores more injured. Troops had
recovered nine bodies of Tigers, three of
them females. They lay in the Jaffna morgue
two days after the fighting.
The Tigers put their death toll at 25 and
put the government military death toll at
over 100. Tigers said that over 20 bodies of
soldiers were brought to Kilinochchi on
April 23 evening. By that afternoon and
evening, several pro-Tiger media outlets
displayed graphic pictures of what they said
were government troops killed in the battles
taken from the trenches. Some of the
recovered bodies appeared to have been put
on public display at the Kilinochchi public
grounds. Ironically, the same grounds were
used periodically by visiting peace envoys,
Tiger delegates and other VVIPs as a
Hundreds have been injured from both
sides and some of the serious cases of the
troops were airlifted to Colombo on April 23
afternoon. Defence Spokesperson, Minister
Keheliya Rambukwella said that over 120 were
receiving treatment in hospitals late last
week while about 40 others had been
Though the government said that 120
soldiers were injured, the Tigers quoted
higher figures. The Defence Ministry said
that the Tigers and civilian militia linked
to them had taken over the Kilinochchi
hospital to care for the injured Tigers. It
also said that the A9 was cleared of
civilian traffic on April 23 morning to
allow casualties to be transported faster to
Twenty four hours after the battles
stopped the ICRC got ready to transport 28
bodies of soldiers through Omanthai into
government controlled areas.
The military said that it was also
readying to hand over the nine Tiger bodies
troops had recovered.
By April 23 evening, the situation
appeared to have returned to what it was the
day before with both sides firmly entrenched
in their positions. The air force had
carried three raids on Tiger artillery
positions and bunker lines at Muhamalai
between 1.30 and 3.45 on April 23 afternoon
using jets and Mi-24 gunships.
The serious fighting was over by 11.30 am
and it was the clearing that was going on
thereafter from both sides.
The military said that it had captured
the first Tiger defence line during the
fighting, gaining around 400 to 500 metres.
The fact that troops had gained access into
Tiger trenches was indicated by pictures and
video footage made available on pro-Tiger
outlets. Several bodies of soldiers and arms
lay in the deep trenches.
The terrain at the southern gates to
Jaffna is flat and sandy. The only tall
trees are the palmyrah and the odd coconut
tree, most of which have had their tops
blown off due to artillery fire, but at some
locations there is shrub, and closer to the
lagoon, it is marshy.
On April 5, 40 journalists from Colombo
were taken to Jaffna on an official tour of
the peninsula. During the two day tour some
of the media personnel were taken close to
the Muhamalai frontlines where a no man’s
land stretch of about 400 metres separates
government lines from those of the Tigers.
The visiting media even witnessed a training
exercise of the Mechanised Infantry Division
(MID) of the 53rd Division.
Its armoured tanks were engaged in
simulated war games among the sand dunes.
The 53rd Division based in Mirusuvil, north
of where last week’s fighting was reported,
had engaged the Tigers on the western side
of the A9 while the 55th Division took them
on along the A9 and areas east of Muhamalai
during the April 23 clashes, according to
maps made available by the MCNS.
The MID was established under the
guidance of Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Sarath
Fonseka in an effort to give the army the
edge over the Tigers in the flat Jaffna
terrain where offensive thrusts have to be
fast and swift to dislodge the entrenched
Tigers — otherwise they can get bogged down
in the flat, open terrain with little cover.
Piecing the story
Piecing the story of what happened along
the Muhamalai-Kilali defences is not an easy
task given the difficulties of access and
the trickle of information that flows down
other than what has been released by the two
It appears that the Tigers adopted a
tactic that has been witnessed on several
occasions since fighting broke out in August
2006 — to fall back to deeper defences from
the front lines and rely on heavy artillery
fire and mortar fire to resist the forward
advances into their areas.
Last week they appeared to have set a
similar pattern — "Terrorists after
withdrawing towards southeast with their
casualties started firing artillery and
mortar at the troops who are facing an open
area intending to advance towards the LTTE’s
second line," the army said on April 23 late
afternoon, of the early morning battles.
The Tiger front line is believed to be
made up of three tiers, all of which have
deep trenches snaking along the FDL. On some
locations the trenches are over six feet
deep and wide enough for three grown males
to stand together. The deep trenches allow
the Tigers cover whereas troops would have
been moving in the open and the Tigers also
had the luxury of falling back into relative
safety and moving within the trenches.
The artillery is placed several
kilometres behind the lines, safe from the
Last month, the military said it believed
that the Tigers were making the existing
trenches wider and deeper and digging even
more in an effort to counter the speed and
manoeuverability of the armoured carriers
and the T-55 battle tanks of the MID.
Also the Tigers are known to have mapped
the front lines extensively using GPS
coordinates, to allow easy targeting for
The Defence Ministry said that two senior
Tigers, Theepan and Muhudan were in charge
of the overall command of the Tiger
formations while ground formations were led
by Jerry, Kumunan and Kutti. The Tigers also
confirmed that Theepan was in overall
command according to reports on TamilNet.
Theepan had been placed as the overall
commander of the Muhamalai sector late last
year. The sector was under the command of
Suppaiah Parami Tamilselvan, the slain Tiger
political head who was killed in an air
strike just outside Kilinochchi in early
November last year. He had inspected the
Muhamalai defences and returned to
Kilinochchi the day before the air raid.
During an air attack on a Tiger command
post north of Kilinochchi in January,
Theepan was suspected to have been injured
when he went off air over Tiger radio
communications for several weeks after the
This is not the first time in 2008 that
troops and Tigers have clashed in the
darkness of pre dawn. Around 5 am in the
early hours of February 6, troops advanced
along the same terrain into Tiger front
lines assisted by T-55 tanks and
multi-barrel fire. A similar foray was
reported the day after in the morning.
On January 30 four T-55 tanks assisted
troops moving into the main Tiger front
lines using the cover of early morning
darkness. The troops destroyed several
bunkers, but did not remain in the Tiger
positions for an extended period.
The Tigers have always maintained that
these advances were stopped in no-man’s
land. On all three occasions troops fell
back to their original positions — the first
Tiger bunker line of August 2006, gained
during the fighting.
The forays have been in line with the
current strategy of government troops — that
of weakening Tiger positions than gaining
and holding ground.
On August 11, 2006 the Tigers attacked
the Muhamalai defences while fighting was
raging in Muttur. The next day they shelled
the Trincomalee harbour. Army troops beat
back the attacks and after a fortnight of
fighting, gained the first Tiger bunker
In October 2006, they broke out of the
defences, but faced heavy resistance from
the Tigers. Those battles also reportedly
claimed the lives of government forces
running into over 100, but that has been
denied by the government.
The Army Commander toured Jaffna the day
before the battles broke out. He met with
senior military commanders at the Security
Forces Headquarters in Palaly on April 22.
Last week’s battles in Muhamalai also
fall right into place in the pattern of
fighting since the fall of Toppigala last
July, during which the epicentre of the
fighting had shifted from Tamapanai to
Adampan to Madhu and now back to Muhamalai,
referred to by troops stationed as the
Jathika Peramunas (national fronts).
Just a day after the Muhamalai battles,
troops finally reached the Madhu Church
compound on April 24 early afternoon when
soldiers from the Eighth Light Infantry
reached the shrine premises.
They had moved on a southeast axis from
Madhu, from Pandisurichchan and
A week after the venerated statue of Our
Lady of Madhu was removed from the shrine on
April 3, it was confirmed that the Tigers
had abandoned the shrine.
When it was gained after almost 10 months
of fighting of which at least four months
were intense, Madhu had been relegated to a