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Bloody fighting after Avurudhu


The newly formed Mechanised Infantry
Division stationed in Muhamalai and
Army troops reached Madhu on April 24

By Amantha Perera

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 23.

Both versions

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 multi-barrel fire.

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.

Pre-emptive move

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 front lines.

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 helipad.

Varying figures

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 discharged.

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 Kilinochchi.

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 sides.

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 advancing troops.

Strategy

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 artillery.

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 attack.

The record

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 line.

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.

Pattern

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 Periyapandisurichchan.

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 side story.


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