Fall of Elephant Pass and repercussions

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The second anniversary of the fall of strategic Elephant Pass base (Alimankada kandavura), headquarters to army’s 54 division falls next Saturday (20). Several hundred pinkamas would be held all over the country in memory of the officers and men who died not only in action but of dehydration as well.

It was the army’s worst defeat(not in terms of the number of officers and men killed in a single battle) in the entire war and was made possible by President Chandrika Kumaratunga government’s idiotic battle-field strategies that immensely helped the LTTE to take the upper hand both in the battle-field and now the negotiating table. It was a decisive victory for the LTTE. In terms of men, the July 1996 battle for army’s 25 Brigade which claimed the lives of approximately 1400 personnel remained the worst.

If the Elephant Pass disaster was averted the LTTE would not have been in a position to dictate terms to the PA or the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) government. Their victory at the gateway to the peninsula gave them a clear advantage over the security forces. But, it could have been avoided if the PA gave proper political leadership. Sadly, both politicians and their ‘yes’ men in the armed forces failed the country.

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LTTE cadres hauling away artillery pieces

The army never recovered from the tragedy at Elephant Pass despite the then army commander Lieutenant General Srilal Weerasuriya’s claim that it (vacating the base under fire) was a tactical withdrawal carried out purely for military reasons. It was a lie. He retired sometime later to take a key diplomatic post but the fall of the base that guarded a thin ribbon of highway linking the Wanni mainland with the Jaffna peninsula wrecked plans (permanently) to restore the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road.

The road was lost during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s administration just weeks after the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990.

Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP-led United National Front (UNF) government would have been able to engage in the Norwegian-mediated peace process from a position of strength if the PA succeeded in thwarting major LTTE offensives in the north (Wanni included). The PA simply ignored the threat posed by the LTTE.

A series of elections including theWayamba provincial council poll and the December 21 1999 presidential poll kept the PA leaders busy. If they acted swiftly, the fall of Elephant Pass and other key bases in the north could have been averted.

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Women Tigers entering Army's
Kanakarayankulam headquarters.

What went wrong at Elephant Pass? How did the LTTE succeed in forcing troops out of the base that was headquarters to the 54 division comprised five brigade groups deployed in the Elephant Pass-Vettilaikerni and for the protection of the main supply route (MSR) from Pallai to Elephant Pass. It was a fully equipped division. Kilinochchi was under its control. This writer had the opportunity to visit the town shortly after troops of Sath Jaya offensive seized Kilinochchi in September 1996. Sath Jaya was launched from Elephant Pass and it was carried out as part of the efforts to restore the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road.

In January 1998, the 54 division held all key towns along the A9 road between Pallai and Kilinochchi. Paranthan was among them. The division was linked overland to Palaly and KKS supply bases. Unlike, the isolated Mullaithivu base, the 54 division had everything including armour, artillery and experienced troops. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) the 54 division headquartered at Elephant Pass was responsible to Security Forces Commander Jaffna based at Palaly. Brigadier Lohan Gunawardene was the GOC. Major General Lionel Balagalle was SF Commander Jaffna.

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Tiger cadres inspecting another artillery piece

The LTTE knew that Elephant Pass could not be seized unless they rolled back the 54 division troops from their southern-most positions at Kilinochchi. They did exactly that. So, the first battle for Elephant Pass took place at Kilinochchi on February 1 1998. In a lightening, multi-pronged assault, the LTTE seized the division’s first-line of defences that were south of the Kilinochchi town. Troops abandoned their first-line of defences and pulled back to positions about just over half a km towards the Kilinochchi town. But the town was within the army held area. The LTTE occupied army’s defences.

During the February 1 battle, the LTTE almost succeeded in wiping out the division’s artillery base situated at Iyakachchi a few kms north of Elephant Pass. Their abortive bid to blast the artillery was made at least a hour before they mounted the assault on Kilinochchi. But the division failed to hold onto its first-line of defence. The LTTE won the first engagement in their battle for Elephant Pass. The PA and the army failed to identify the danger. The PA proudly claimed that they thwarted the LTTE bid to capture Kilinochchi town. What the government failed to understand was that Kilinochchi was not the ultimate target. It happened to be the first in a series of ‘targets’ the LTTE hoped to seize before pouncing on Elephant Pass.

This reporter was among a group of local and foreign journalists taken to Kilinochchi town on February 16 to prove that the 54 division held the town despite losing its first-line of defences.

The PA ignored the LTTE threat. Without taking whatever action necessary to neutralise the threat, the government re-imposed censorship to hide embarrassing battle-field losses. The 54 division made a disastrous bid to regain the lost defences in the first week of June same year. The LTTE inflicted heavy losses on the attacking units. Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs) were lost. In October, the following year the 54 division conducted a limited offensive in the area. It was not a success.

The LTTE waited for eight months before renewing their major operations against the 54 division. In the last week of September, the LTTE mounted a multi-pronged assault on the division. They targeted the brigades deployed at Paranthan and Kilinochchi. Attacks on Kilinochchi brigade were launched from the positions they captured on February 1. The LTTE lost about 240 cadres. Most of them died at Paranthan. But the LTTE leadership achieved its objective. The 54 division was forced to vacate Kilinochchi and pulled back to Paranthan-a distance of about 41/2 kms. The 72-hour battle for Kilinochchi took the division by surprise. Millions worth of military equipment were lost to the LTTE. The PA took advantage of the censorship to hide facts.

A Court of Inquiry was appointed to probe the Kilinochchi debacle. The report was never made public. The PA ignored repeated UNP calls to set up a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to investigate defeat. The PA also rejected a call to have a special parliamentary debate.

Army headquarters also ordered a probe on the February 1 loss of the 54 division’s first-line of defences. That Court of Inquiry report too was never made public.

For about a year, the LTTE conducted operations against the 54 division troops, particularly those deployed at Paranthan. The PA continued to ignore the threat on Paranthan, the southern-most defences of the Elephant Pass base.

While ignoring the deteriorating situation in the area held by the 54 division, the government mounted a series of operations in the Wanni aimed at bringing a large area under its control. The first of these offensives was launched on December 2 1998 after calling off Jayasikurui (victory assured) offensive launched on May 13 1997. Jayasikurui offensive sought to restore the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road.

The December 2 offensive was code-named Rivi Bala. It brought 134 square kms under the government control in the Wanni ( east). It linked Puliyankulam with Nedunkerni and Mankulam. Rivi Bala was followed by a series of offensives in the Wanni resulting in the government bringing in approximately 1500 square kms under its control by the middle of 1999. The 450-year-old scared Madhu shrine was within the area regained. Politicians and military leaders were jubilant.

The LTTE did not resist army’s Wanni offensives codenamed Ranagosa. Approximately 1500 square kms were brought under control within months. The LTTE avoided big confrontations. But in September 1999, they fiercely resisted an army advance on Periyamadhu in the western part of the Wanni. Troops suffered a humiliating defeat. The September battle was evidence that the LTTE was going to strike back.

A month later, the LTTE stepped up operations against the 54 division. The division was forced to desert more territory. Despite worsening situation in the area held by the 54 division, the army continued with its adventure in the area that came under the Security Forces Commander Wanni based at Vavuniya. The Wanni commander made another disastrous bid in November 1999 to regain Periyamadhu, situated north-west of Palampiddy. While, the government was concentrating on the Periyamadhu operation, the LTTE in a lightening strike forced the army to vacate almost all areas including Oddusuddan, Mankulam, Kanagarayankulam and Nedunkerni captured in operations from May 13 1997 and September 1999. Everything was lost along with control of large sectors in Weli-oya region.

The LTTE blitz shook the PA. President Chandrika Kumaratunga was furious. A tri-services Court of Inquiry was appointed while the government accused the a group of officers including the three senior most army officers in the Wanni of conspiring with Major General Lucky Algama to engineer a major battle-field defeat in support of UNP presidential election candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe. The PA’s stance was idiotic. It only helped the LTTE. The PA knew that the loss of a Wanni bases would have a devastating effect on President Kumaratunga’s campaign. The PA which had the advantage of censorship to hide facts accused Algama of conspiring with a section of the army and the LTTE to help the UNP leader’s campaign. Algama was questioned by the CID on November 23. Nothing came out of it. The tri-services Court of Inquiry failed to find anything to link the Wanni debacle to a political conspiracy involving a section of the army, the LTTE and the UNP.

By the first week of December, the LTTE was ready to mount their final push for Elephant Pass. The government was busy with its campaign for the December 21 presidential election that had to be by any means. Everything else was forgotten. Deteriorating situation in the north did not alarm the government.

The LTTE struck on December 10 1999. The 54 division was the target. Despite all indications the LTTE was going to put everything it had against the division, the government apparently failed to assess the situation correctly. The division’s southern-most defences at Paranthan fell on December 21 (presidential election day). Two days before, they assassinated Major General Algama while almost succeeding in killing President Kumaratunga. They attacked from all sides. Troops continued to withdraw from their positions around the Elephant Pass base while the LTTE expanded their offensive by seizing a beachhead at Thanankilappu on the edge of the Jaffna peninsula. It was their second front. The army did not see the danger. While the PA was having celebrating their victory at the presidential poll, the LTTE was expanding operations in the peninsula taking advantage of their beachhead at Thanankilappu. Soon Ariyalai was brought under their control.

Between January and the third week of March 2000, the LTTE slowly but steadily surrounded the Elephant Pass base. In the last week of March, the LTTE launched the final assault on the base. The LTTE was attacking the base while conducting a series of operations in the peninsula using their beachhead to pour in men and material. The army was to pay heavily for their failure to block Thanankilappu.

The PA was not interested in Jaffna. They were having secret negotiations with a group of UNPers who wanted to join the ruling party.

By the second week of April, the base was almost on the verge of being overrun. Troops fought bravely. The government slept.

On April 18 or 19 the government directed the 54 division to vacate the base. The division withdrew to Soranpattu. The LTTE continued with their offensive. The division and units deployed in support later deserted Soranpattu. Weeks later the army was forced to abandoned their positions at Pallai. The LTTE pushed forward until they seized positions within the Jaffna city limits.

Major General Janaka Perera was appointed Overall Operations Commander (OOC) North with Major General Sarath Fonseka as the Security Forces Commander Jaffna only after the order was given to vacate the base. They were sent there to save Jaffna. What would have happened if Major General Perera was given the opportunity to regain Kilinochchi soon after the LTTE captured the town. If the PA acted promptly, they could have prevented the Elephant Pass disaster.

When PA politicians were in hiding, Major General Perera came live over the ITN to assure the people that he would not allow the fall of Jaffna captured in December 1995. Perera, who led the elite 53 division in the battle for Jaffna vowed that he would thwart the LTTE’s bid on Jaffna. The two Majors General succeeded in stabilising the situation in the peninsula only to be moved out in July 2000. Why Major General Perera was not allowed to continue in Jaffna? The government claimed that their presence was not required in the peninsula as the security forces had regained the upper hand and the LTTE was not in a position to threaten the peninsula again. Who wanted Janaka Perera out of Jaffna?

Post of the OOC was scrapped. Perera was replaced. The Major General who inflicted a series of battle-field defeats on the LTTE over the years and played a pivotal role in defeating the JVP’s second terrorist campaign was also denied the chance to command the army. He could have saved the PA. But the PA did not want the Major General to succeed in Jaffna. The PA was anxious to get him out of the country. He was appointed Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia.

All know what happened in April 2001 in Jaffna. The army, engaged in a series of operations in the peninsula to regain areas lost to the LTTE during the peninsula battle suffered a humiliating defeat in April 2001 when troops backed by multi-barrel rocket launchers, Kfirs and MIG 27s tried to regain Pallai. The army suffered massive losses both in men and material. The battle for Pallai put an end to PA’s hopes of tackling the LTTE by military means.