LTTE focus shifts to Jaffna once again

By Our Defence Correspondent
The LTTE has shifted its focus from the east to the Jaffna Peninsula once again, and meticulous plans are being made on how the Tigers aim to deal a knockout blow to the armed forces if the peace process breaks down, by encircling and wiping out more than 30,000 troops in the peninsula, according to sources in the Wanni.

This follows several rounds of discussions between the top ranking LTTE military members last week, at which senior Tiger intelligence cadres briefed them on the findings of hundreds of cadres who have infiltrated into the Jaffna Peninsula since the A9 highway was reopened in April, sources said.

Detailed discussions were held regarding Tiger strategy for the capture of the peninsula, sources said. Although it is not clear what the strategy entails, it is completely different from the LTTE’s last attempt to capture Jaffna, which failed in 2000 and 2001.

However, no timeframe was set for the attack, sources said. The LTTE is in the midst of Phase II of its attempt to recruit thousands of cadres in the Eastern Province, and has now begun heavily recruiting in the Jaffna Peninsula as well. It is clear that the Tigers will not attack while these recruits are still in training, and the Tigers believe that they can recruit many more personnel.

The new strategy targets the capture of the port of Kankesanthurai and the Palali air force base complex, rather than directly assaulting Jaffna town, sources said. The LTTE has apparently learned a lesson from its last attempt, where the forces managed to contain them in a series of bitter street battles in the towns of Jaffna and Chavakachcheri, after the Tigers actually got within the municipal limits of Jaffna itself.

The strategy is clearly aimed at encircling the forces, rather than attacking them directly. Encirclement is the only way in which a smaller attacking force can defeat a larger force of defenders. The LTTE has used this tactic extremely successfully in the past, notably during their capture of Mullaitivu in 1996, where they wiped out 1,200 troops, and Elephant Pass in 2000 where they routed a garrison of more than 10,000 soldiers and killed hundreds of them by encircling them and depriving them of water.

The Tigers are clearly banking on ending the war with a knockout blow to the armed forces. The capture or destruction of the more than 30,000 troops in the peninsula would definitely achieve this aim, as the government would be forced to concede every demand of the Tigers and officially recognize the state of Eelam.

Interestingly, LTTE Intelligence Chief Pottu Amman was not at the meeting, sources said. He is believed to be still in the Eastern Province, where he was sent in April for the dual purpose of gathering intelligence and planning attacks on targets in the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts, and ensuring discipline among the eastern cadres who had been having several major incidents with the forces which had threatened the ceasefire.

However, at the discussions, LTTE Intelligence had briefed the top hierarchy about the information that they had gathered regarding the east, sources said. The report has stated that although it would be possible to capture the port and town of Trincomalee, it would not be possible to hold the area against the massive counterattacks that would be launched by the armed forces.

The presence of an Indian oil company, as well as other foreign companies such as Prima flour and Mitsui cement, had also worried the Tigers, since there would be a definite likelihood of intervention by Indian armed forces to save Trincomalee or help the forces recapture it, on the ground that India now has an interest in the town due to the leasing of 17 giant oil storage tanks there.

The Indian Navy maintains a large fleet off Sri Lanka’s east coast, as part of its efforts to help the armed forces in their efforts to cut off the LTTE supply routes. At the same time, the Indian Coast Guard patrols the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar to cut off supply efforts through South India, assisted by Indian intelligence operatives of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Indian police agencies.

The Indian fleet off Sri Lanka’s east coast is its second largest gathering of warships, the first being the Indian Navy fleet off Bombay in the Arabian Sea which is constantly on alert to move against Pakistan. In recent weeks many vessels were shifted to the Arabian Sea from the Bay of Bengal, during the tense period when both India and Pakistan were massing troops on their border.

The likelihood of intervention by United States naval and air forces during any attack on Trincomalee, had also been discussed, sources said. This apparently stems from the increased US naval presence in the South Asian region due to the war in Afghanistan, and the Bush administration’s policy of actively encouraging the peace talks. The visits of several US Navy warships to Colombo in the past few months, had sent a clear signal that the administration of President George W. Bush was taking a serious interest in the activities of the LTTE, which remains a banned terrorist group in the US.

The Bush administration has not showed any interest in lifting the ban on the LTTE, although it has revised its original list of 32 terrorist organizations and lifted the ban on several other groups. Even should the Sri Lankan government lift the ban on the LTTE, it is most likely that the US government would not be swayed.

During the first two months of the current ceasefire, the LTTE had been focusing its future military plans on the Eastern Province, as they had in 1990 and 1995 when the Tigers abruptly ended negotiations with surprise attacks on the armed forces and police.

As exclusively written in this column, the LTTE had planned to launch an all-out assault to capture Trincomalee, for the first time. Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had believed that capturing Trincomalee would isolate the Jaffna Peninsula. It would have been logistically easier to launch an attack on Trincomalee, as the Tigers could quickly move thousands of cadres into the Trincomalee from both the Northern and Eastern Provinces to launch a massive wave of attacks.

However, the Tigers appear to have realized that they may not be able to inflict a mortal blow on the armed forces at Trincomalee, sources said.