Army prepares to open a new front

Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General G. A. Chandrasiri asserted that his troops had been able to thwart LTTE attempts to infiltrate the peninsula via Pooneryn on the Vanni mainland and trigger chaos mounting claymore mine blasts, suicide attacks and small arms attacks. According to him, there had been over 2,000 LTTE cadres in the peninsula when the LTTE launched a major attack in the second week of August 2005.

Pix by Dimuthu Premaratne

Kankesanthurai jetty

The assassination of Chief government Whip Jeyaraj Fernandopulle has triggered international calls for a negotiated settlement to the ethnic problem. The international community while condemning the assassination of Fernandopulle emphasised there wouldn’t be a military solution. But both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Premier Ratnasiri Wickremanayake declared the assassination of their colleague would strengthen their resolve to crush the LTTE. In fact, the assassination would compel the government to advance the military action and bring the war in the Vanni to a successful conclusion as early as possible.

Action on Mannar, Weli Oya fronts

Against the backdrop of gradual progress on the Mannar and Weli Oya fronts, Army Chief Lt. General Sarath Fonseka is preparing to unleash his troops on the Jaffna front. Although the LTTE had expected the government to launch the Jaffna offensive months earlier, the Army Chief has delayed the assault until his troops made progress on the Mannar and Weli Oya fronts. But the LTTE, now struggling to thwart the army on the Mannar and Weli Oya fronts, would soon face a fresh offensive across the Jaffna frontline.

Although the army chief has not indicated when he intended to open the Jaffna front, the launch of major offensive action would mark the beginning of the biggest ever ground assault in the entire Eelam War.

Army headquarters recently organised a two-day visit by the Colombo-based media to the Jaffna peninsula including the frontline where the army was engaged in small group operations.

The road leading to Nagarkovil

Lt. Colonel sniped at An incident closer to the Muhamalai frontline on April 8, the day after the media delegation had returned to Colombo, underscored the dangerous situation on the Jaffna front. Lieutenant Colonel Jagath Ratnayake was sniped at when in the company of Brigadier Kamal Gunaratne, General Officer Commanding (GCO) Army’s 55 Division headquartered at Urani. A sudden movement made by Ratnayake saved his life. Wounded in the shoulder, he was rushed to Palaly Military Hospital before being transferred to National Hospital. His condition is reported to be stable. Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General G. A. Chandrasiri visited the officer at the intensive Care Unit of the National Hospital.

The army chief would have the 55 and 53 Divisions to take the battle into the LTTE heartland. They have been engaged in a series of small scale operations to test and weaken the frontline defences of the enemy over the past few months. In some instances, the newly raised Mechanised Infantry Brigade had spearheaded assaults on the enemy but the army had not attempted to bring territory under its control.

August 2006 disaster

Jaffna town

The last major army action on the Muhamalai front ended in disaster. An ill-timed ground assault spearheaded by armoured fighting vehicles had to be called off after troops suffered heavy losses in October 2006. The action almost crippled two battalions and resulted in the loss of six armoured fighting vehicles. But since then, the army had turned the situation in its favour with a series of significant battle-field victories in the Northern and Eastern theatres.

Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General G. A. Chandrasiri asserted that his troops had been able to thwart LTTE attempts to infiltrate the peninsula via Pooneryn on the Vanni mainland and trigger chaos mounting claymore mine blasts, suicide attacks and small arms attacks. According to him, there had been over 2,000 LTTE cadres in the peninsula when the LTTE launched a major attack in the second week of August 2005.

In the eyes of the army top brass, the Jaffna peninsula and the Jaffna islands remained their first priority. The deployment of 33,000 officers and men on the offensive and defence capacity and administrative duties would definitely be the largest deployment in various theatres of operations. Most importantly, Jaffna is the home to the Mechanised Infantry Brigade which would give unprecedented mobility to troops and facilitate rapid progress on the Jaffna front.

The navy, SLAF and police altogether have about 8,000 officers and men on the ground.

Muhamalai front

After touching down at Palaly air base, which is still within the LTTE artillery range, the media delegation was taken in armoured personnel carriers to the Muhamalai front, the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula. The battle for Mavil-aru in June/July 2006 had been a side show. The actual LTTE offensive directed against the Jaffna peninsula launched on August 11 stunned the army. Troops abandoned their frontline positions as the LTTE seized the initiative. Had the LTTE succeeded in crippling the Trincomalee-Kankesanthurai sea supply line as envisaged in its overall action plan, the peninsula would have been vulnerable. Despite initial setbacks, the army fought back and after three weeks of bloody battles regained positions it abandoned in the second week of August and by the first week of September, the army seized the enemy’s first line of defence at Muhamalai. Today the army’s Muhamalai front line is what the LTTE lost in the first week of September 2006.

The visiting media delegation was first taken to the Muhamalai front line where Lieutenant Colonel Jagath Ratnayake, the officer in charge of the area directed the journalists to wear flak jackets. "Wear body armour and follow the army. Don’t deviate from the path taken by the army to avoid being a victim of a mine explosion," Ratnayake said. The LTTE had its frontline positions about 400 meters away from the army line where the journalists had been taken on a field visit on the afternoon of April 6.

Infantry in special role

The journalists met a heavily armed six-man team returning from a reconnaissance mission across the no man’s land. One of them had carried a sniper weapon. Major Roshan Jayamanne, the second-in-command of the 4 GW (Fourth Battalion of the Gemunu Watch) deployed at Muhamalai said the team coming from a three-day mission was part of the infantry engaged in special operations.

Jaffna Commander Chandrasiri asserted troops engaged in operations ahead of their positions along the 12 km long army frontline had killed terrorists almost on a daily basis. The frontline extended from Kilali to Nagarkovil on the Vadamaradchchy East coast. Chandrasiri said the frontline cut across Eluththumaduwal, Kadolana (marshy land) and Muhamalai. Fielding questions, he said his troops had the overall superiority in the area. He estimated the number of infiltrators operating in the government held area at about 25. "Troops worked hard over a period of time to neutralise the threat posed by infiltrators," he said. According to him the LTTE had deployed about 800 cadres to resist an army advance. Once the army opened the Jaffna front, the LTTE, he said would have to make drastic changes on the ground as it wouldn’t be an easy task to battle the army simultaneously on different fronts.

55, 53 Divisions ready

Chandrasiri has two fighting Divisions under his command and would unleash them on the enemy. Once the 55 and 53 Divisions swing into action, the LTTE would be forced to re-deploy both men and material to face offensive action on different fronts. Unlike troops engaged in operations on the Mannar and Weli Oya fronts, the 55 and 53 Divisions would engage in large scale ground action. The ongoing air strikes tragetting a range of LTTE assets based in the Vanni and the navy’s success on the high seas which resulted in the destruction of eight floating arsenals would facilitate the final onslaught on the enemy. The Mechanised Infantry, which would spearhead the assault, had been assigned to the 53 Division. Brigadier Samantha Sooriyabandara of the Commando Regiment functions as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 53 Division headquartered at Mirusuvil. Colonel Ralph Nugera commands the Mechanised Infantry which would play a critical role in the battle for territory between the current army frontline and Elephant Pass. The LTTE would have to deploy a sizeable force to resist the army advance which would largely depend on the Mechanised Infantry’s ability to make rapid progress on an extremely difficult ground. In fact, the final outcome of the battle for Vanni would largely depend on the army’s ability to move rapidly towards Elephant Pass,

The army chief laid the foundation for the Mechanised Infantry a few years ago and today it has the wherewithal to provide a critical battlefield breakthrough on the Jaffna front.

Two Divisions on ‘holding role’

Chandrasiri has four Divisions under his command. The 51 Division headquartered in Jaffna is deployed in the Waligamam area. Major. General L. B. R. Mark commands the 51 Division. His troops face LTTE units deployed across the Jaffna lagoon at Pooneryn. Mark said his troops had repeatedly thwarted LTTE attempts to infiltrate the peninsula in the guise of fishermen. Among the infiltrators were suicide cadres, he said.

The 52 Division, headquartered at Varani, is deployed in the Thennamaradchchy and Vadamaradchy sectors. Brigadier Mano Perera functions as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 52 Division. The 51 and 52 Divisions are responsible for security in the peninsula. Neutralising the threat posed by infiltrators on military, civilian and economic targets would be their primary task.

Brigadier Kamal Gunaratne of the Gajaba Regiment said troops under his command would push forward once they received the green light from the Army Chief.

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