Eelam War IV: Tigers face defeat

On August 11, 2006, when the LTTE launched its assault on the army frontlines at Muhamalai the chances of beating them back seemed slim. Within hours, the army was on the retreat on the northern front. The collapse of the entire 12 kilometre northern forward defence line through Kilali, Muhamalai and Nagarkovil on the Vadamaradchi east coast seemed inevitable as the LTTE had disrupted both sea and air supply routes. The very survival of the Rajapaksa government was at stake.

Long range artillery fire directed at Palaly air base and Kankesanturai harbour triggered chaos in the peninsula. The LTTE was maximising artillery acquired during the Ceasefire Agreement.

They opened another front with a daring assault on the navy held Kayts Island on the following day. Obviously, Kayts was to be used as a springboard to assault Jaffna. The LTTE had also landed on the Mandaitivu Island.

Well coordinated LTTE initiative

The Nordic truce monitoring mission lost no time blaming the LTTE, dismissing their claim that they only responded to artillery fire directed by the army based in the Jaffna peninsula. The then monitoring mission chief Major General (retd) Ulf Henricsson said, "...considering the preparation level of the operations, it seems to have been a well coordinated LTTE initiative".

The LTTE had launched the assault on the government's northern FDL with a meticulously planned operation involving sea landings which caused havoc in Trincomalee. Had they succeeded in sinking the ‘Jetliner’ approaching the Trincomalee harbour with hundreds of servicemen aboard on August 1, 2006, and seized Muttur the following day, the ground situation would have been different today. As the army spearheaded operations to wipe out LTTE units operating in Muttur area, the enemy had directed artillery fire at the Trincomalee navy base from Sampur. For almost a week the LTTE battled the army and navy in the East as they pressed on with their attack on Muhamalai.

To the army’s credit, troops after repulsing the attack went onto capture the enemy’s first line of defence in the first week of September. This wouldn’t have been possible without the overwhelming firepower of the Jaffna –based artillery and Kfirs launched from Katunayake.

First attempt since 2000

This was the first attempt to overrun the Jaffna peninsula since their April-May 2000 bid which brought the strategic Elephant Pass area under their control.

The current security forces drive is being made with the LTTE conducting a systematic propaganda campaign against the Rajapaksa administration. But the three services and police, particularly the elite STF have brought the enemy to its knees in less than two years despite heavy international pressure spearheaded by the EU. Sri Lanka’s gradual improvement in relations with India has facilitated the military action.

LTTE build-up

The LTTE made an abortive attempt to sink ‘Pearl Cruise 11’ carrying several hundred servicemen returning to their bases in the Jaffna peninsula off the Mullaitivu coast on May 11, 2006, close on the heels of the assassination attempt on Army Chief Lt. General Sarath Fonseka at the army headquarters. By infiltrating army headquarters, the LTTE revealed the capacity of its intelligence wing, which had infiltrated the government security forces to such an extent, that even the retaliatory Kfir strike ordered on Sampur shortly after the attack on the army chief didn't surprise them.

The August offensive gave the LTTE a realistic chance of building on its Elephant Pass success in April, 2000. A veteran LTTE commander Balraj in October 2003 is on record asserting that the LTTE was militarily in a better position as it controlled Elephant Pass, a thin ribbon of highway which connects the Jaffna peninsula with the Wanni mainland.

Elephant Pass debacle

Let me briefly recount the circumstances in which the army had to abandon Elephant Pass despite having a fully fledged Division plus troops in that particular sector. Since Killinochchi fell in October 1998, the army was on the retreat. Hard on the heels of the humiliating defeat at Killinochchi, Paranthan fell and soon the LTTE was on the offensive against joint army-navy base at Kaddikaadu-Vettilankerni. The base fell in December, 1999. Once the forces had abandoned the Vettilankerni beach-head established in 1991 by troops of ‘Operation Balavegaya’, the largest ever amphibious assault launched to break the siege on the Elephant Pass base, the army strengthened its Thalaiyadi base, north of Kaddikaadu and established what is subsequently called the Vaththiraayan box-a heavily fortified base from Thalaiyadi to Puthuikkaattu junction on the A9 road.

In the eastern part of the Vanni, the LTTE inflicted an unprecedented defeat on the army and the navy. On November 1, 1999, the LTTE evicted the army and navy from Nedunkerni-Oddussudan and Mankulam-Oddussudan roads. The forces gave up the entire area captured in November, 1998 within 24 hours. The losses were minimal as troops simply abandoned their positions and retreated along a wide front. But the worst was yet to come.

The then President Chandrika Kumaratunga's government was busy in campaigning for the December presidential election. Kumaratunga, who survived an assassination attempt a few days before the presidential election, prematurely retired seven senior officers for their failure to thwart the debacle in Vanni east. But strangely, similar action wasn't taken against the top brass in charge of Killinochchi, Elephant Pass and Jaffna commands.

Vettilankerni abandoned

Despite losing the Vettilankerni beachhead, Elephant Pass had direct overland supply routes to both Palaly and KKS bases. The army was confident of receiving regular supplies and reinforcements from rear bases and of casualty evacuation. Unfortunately, the military high command, particularly the navy leadership, hadn’t thought of the possibility of a large scale sea induction of men and material to cut off Elephant Pass. It was perhaps a critical juncture of the transformation of the LTTE from essentially a guerrilla outfit to an organisation with a proven conventional military capacity.

After having inflicted significant losses on the army in the northern theatre, the LTTE stunned the army with a large scale amphibious assault on the Kudarappu-Manmunai beach on the Vadamaradchi east coast. For want of a strategy to thwart the enemy, the LTTE on March 26, 2000 carried out the largest ever sea landing carried out by them to isolate Elephant Pass. It was perhaps the finest hour of the Sea Tigers, who fought their way to secure the beachhead, brought in several hundred heavily armed cadres and a large stock of military supplies. Within hours after the landings, Elephant Pass base was cut off and within 48 hours even the emergency overland supply route along Jaffna lagoon was under threat. The blockade spearheaded by the elite Charles Anthony ‘Brigade’ caused the collapse of Elephant Pass on April 22. The LTTE advanced into the outskirts of the Jaffna City by May.

54 Division

The army’s failure to defend Elephant Pass in 2000, despite having a division plus fully equipped troops with a sizeable artillery and armour support, underscored the rapid growth of the LTTE since its first attempt to dislodge the army from Elephant Pass nine years previously. The strength of the base couldn’t have been more than 800 (about a battalion) whereas the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 54 Division had over 10 battalions under him, armour and artillery.

Although the army launched limited counter attacks in May and gradually stepped-up attacks until the disastrous Agnikeela offensive in early 2001 had brought an end to the army efforts to advance towards Elephant Pass. The devastating raid on the Katunayake airbase and the airport wobbled the Kumaratunga administration.

The Oslo arranged peace agreement which came into operation in February 2002 allowed the LTTE to prepare for a well coordinated offensive which it launched on August 11, 2006. If the LTTE swiftly realized its two major objectives, namely the disruption of Trincomalee-KKS sea line of communications and evicting the army from Muhamalai, the LTTE would have achieved superiority over the army stationed in Jaffna. Quitting the peace process in April 2003, target killings of intelligence services personnel, de-stabilisation of the East, engineering UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the November, 2005 presidential election had been all part of their strategy. The LTTE would have most probably felt that it could have overwhelmed Rajapaksa comfortably. When the LTTE had triggered claymore mines in December (less than three weeks after the presidential election) and blew up a Fast Attack Craft off Trincomalee in the following month, the writing was on the wall.

Kadir assassination

In fact, the August 12, 2005 assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar should have caused the immediate abrogation of the CFA. I have no doubt, the LTTE would have been ready to face any eventuality but major ground battles didn’t erupt until a year later.

Had the LTTE succeeded in its August, 2006 endeavour, the Rajapaksa government wouldn’t have absolutely anything to be proud of as the President approached his third year in office. Despite waste, corruption and mismanagement at the highest levels threatening the very survival of the people, the armed forces have made significant progress on the battlefield in the past two years.

When major ground battles erupted in August several weeks after the confrontation at Mavil-aru, the LTTE had a formidable fighting force deployed in the Wanni theatre and the East, a fleet of ships, a well established intelligence network, agents working on fresh arms deals including in China and the US. Moreover, the international community including the Norwegian-led truce monitoring mission believed the LTTE had the wherewithal to overwhelm the armed forces.

The LTTE boasted of having a fully fledged conventional army while rapidly growing Sea Tigers had given it the confidence to take on the challenge. But after two years of intense battles, the LTTE had lost all its bases in the East and south of Mannar and are now struggling to stop the army on the Vanni and Weli Oya fronts. With the army expected to make rapid progress on the western part of the Vanni (west of the A9), the LTTE would be gradually forced to shift its major assets to the region east of the A9 where the army was experiencing stiff resistance. The loss of the entire north-western coast would deny the LTTE the opportunity to receive urgently needed supplies from Tamil Nadu. The bottom line would be that the LTTE wouldn’t have the advantage of using the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet to facilitate their operations across the Gulf of Mannar.

Had the LTTE succeeded in their attempts to assassinate the army chief in April, 2006 and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in December, the enemy would have definitely taken the upper hand on the battlefield.

Gotabhaya’s role

In fact, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ensured the continuity of the government security strategy thereby facilitating offensive action against the enemy at different levels. The three service commanders, Lt. General Sarath Fonseka, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and Air Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke are undoubtedly the most successful service chiefs. The President’s absolute confidence in his younger brother who had served the army before taking a lucrative assignment in the U.S. in the early 90s, guaranteed no one could have influenced the war strategy. A case in point was the sharp difference of opinion between Rajapaksa and the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera who clashed over a range of issues, particularly the closure of the entry/exit point at Muhamalai. The army closed the Muhamalai point subsequent to the August 11, 2006 offensive by the LTTE. But the then Foreign Ministry wanted to re-open the A9 road but the military rejected the move on the basis that it would be advantageous to the LTTE.

The 14-month honeymoon between President Premadasa and the LTTE ended in the second week of June, 1992, with the army losing control of the A9 (the overland Main Supply Route) to Jaffna. Since then, the forces based in the Jaffna peninsula have been totally dependent on air and sea supply routes. Due to severe limitations in SLAF capacity, the Trinomalee-KKS sea line of communication has been the principal supply route. If the August, 2006 offensive directed at Trincomalee navy base, had succeeded it would have isolated the Jaffna forces. The consequences would have been catastrophic and the losses irrevocable.

Vanni debacle

In May, 1997 the government launched ‘Operation Jayasikurui’ to restore the MSR to the Jaffna peninsula. The offensive had envisaged the army advancing from Vavuniya to link-up with Kilinochchi, a town seized by ‘Sath Jaya’ troops in the third week of September 1996.

Although, the ‘Jayasikurui’ offensive had caused heavy losses on the LTTE, the military failed to achieve its objective, thereby forcing the government to call off the operation in December 1998.

While, ‘Jayasikurui’ troops were struggling to push towards Kilinochchi, the LTTE in February 1998 overran the army’s first line of defences at Kilinochchi. In late September 1998, the army retreated from Kilinochchi. The army held its positions at Paranthan briefly before pulling back to Elephant Pass. The LTTE was setting the stage for a decisive change in their overall strategy which would in just over a year give them the opportunity to defeat the army in the Jaffna peninsula.

Immediately after calling off ‘Jayasikurui’, the army re-deployed the battle-fatigued battalions to link-up Olumadu, Oddussudan, Nedunkerni and Puliyankulam on the eastern part of the Vanni (east of A9) December, 1998. Buoyant with the success on the Vanni east, the army had moved westwards of the A9. Troops brought over 1300 square kilometres under their control in operations conducted in March, May and June, 1999. What the army didn’t realise was the absence of resistance. The assertion that the LTTE had lost its wherewithal to resist the army exploded when the LTTE launched a lightening assault on the forces deployed at Oddussudan-Olumaddu and Oddussudan-Nedenkerni on November 1, 1999. The army and the navy quickly abandoned their positions and retreated towards Welioya. Within 48 hours, Welioya was under threat. The LTTE swiftly struck across the Vanni west and within hours the army was on the retreat. Territorial gains made in March, May and June were abandoned.

The then government made an abortive attempt to present the unprecedented military defeat as a political conspiracy. A ridiculous bid was made to link retired army chief of staff Lakshman Algama in the conspiracy.

This followed the devastating loss of Elephant Pass.

Dec 4, 1997

The loss of over 150 officers and men of the Commando Regiment in action on December4, 1997 during the ‘Jayasikurui’ campaign revealed negligence on the part of the army. Acting on unsubstantiated intelligence, the army had ordered a commando assault on what it believed was an LTTE artillery point about seven miles away from Kanagarayankulam. But it turned out to be a well laid trap and within hours, troops had to retreat leaving behind their colleagues. The LTTE returned over 100 bodies through the ICRC.

In the past two years, security forces spearheaded by the army had brought the LTTE to its knees. In fact, when one examine the strength of the enemy when major battles broke out in August 2006, it was incredible that government forces had the expertise to turn around the situation.

A critical shortcoming in the government’s strategy had been the absence of an actual assessment of the ground situation. The LTTE has been able to bounce back seemingly from an unwinnable situation. A case in point was the destruction of the Mullaitivu Brigade in mid 1996, just six months after losing the entire Jaffna peninsula.

Intelligence failure

Had the military top brass correctly assessed the overall losses suffered by the LTTE during the Riviresa campaign in the Jaffna peninsula between August and December, 1995, they would have known that the group had retained enough firepower. The smashing up of Mullaitivu followed by a series of operations over the next four years which brought the LTTE and the army face to face across 12 kilometres long northern forward defence line which runs through Kilali, Muhamalai and Nagarkovil. The positions remain the same despite three major offensives launched by the army since the August 11, 2006 LTTE assault, whereas the army had made significant progress on the Vanni and Weli Oya fronts.

Although, the LTTE retains a substantial strength in the Vanni, the group lacks the wherewithal to resist the army. As Army Chief Lt. General Sarath Fonseka recently asserted during a meeting with a group of journalists working for wire services, the LTTE’s days are numbered.

On the Vanni (57 Division, Task Force 1 and Task Force 11) and Weli Oya (59 Division) fronts, the LTTE was on the retreat. West of the A 9, the front is almost 75 kilometres wide while the overall length of the two fronts was about 115 kilometres and the LTTE facing a severe shortage of men and material would find it extremely difficult to stop the army’s advance. The stage is now set for wide scale infiltration into the LTTE-held territory. Gradual increase in the number of persons reaching the government-held area over the past four months suggests the LTTE is unable to cut off escape routes.

Although three attempts by the army to penetrate the LTTE defences at Muhamalai had failed over the past two years, the army remains confident of a breakthrough on the northern front as troops on the Vanni and Weli Oya fronts eat further into enemy territory. The army could have avoided some of the losses of men and material if had a correct intelligence estimate of the LTTE strength and weakness on that particular sector. The rapid collapse of LTTE bases west of the A9 would force the LTTE to vacate the north-western coast between Vidattaltivu and Pooneryn. The loss of the Gulf of Mannar supply route would considerably weaken the LTTE. The collapse of LTTE bases on the west and east of the A9 would have a destabilising impact on its units in the north.

SLN operations on the high seas which caused the destruction of eight ships loaded with armaments including artillery pieces, shells, air craft in knocked-down condition and a range of other items between September 2006 and October 2007 had denied regular supplies. An unprecedented US crackdown on the LTTE in 2006 had thwarted LTTE attempts to acquire a range of weapons including anti-aircraft missiles. Sri Lanka also believes her representations to the People’s Republic of China had prevented the LTTE from securing Chinese equipment. The eight floating arsenals destroyed by the SLN are believed to have carried a vast quantity of Chinese equipment. The SLN’s action to secure the Maldivian cooperation to interrogate some LTTE cadres in their custody after sinking of Sri Krishna off Maldivian waters was a real victory and it really helped the navy to plan subsequent action on the high seas and also to identify the arms, ammunition and equipment on board floating arsenals of the LTTE.

The break-up of the LTTE triggered by Karuna in March 2004 had, in fact, caused the first crack in the organisation. The LTTE never recovered from the break-up and the eventual collapse of its bases in the East had now denied him fresh recruits. Cooperation between the breakaway LTTE faction and the army and navy and police to a certain extent, too, had contributed to the rapid deterioration of the LTTE influence in the East and Colombo. The success of the first election to the Eastern PC and the installation of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan as the Chief Minister of the EPC proved the military effort hadn’t been in vain.

The critical role played by intelligence services and their contribution to the overall destruction of the LTTE was tremendous. In fact, intelligence services never had the opportunity to spearhead a campaign which caused pressure on the LTTE. And on the other hand, the LTTE intelligence service, too, had its success with the assassination of Kadirgamar, commando raid on Anuradhapura SLAF base, the massacre of over 100 SLN personnel at Diganpothana and the raid on the Galle harbour. Shortly after the Anuradhapura debacle, the SLAF jets killed S. P. Thamilselvan and it was not a stroke of luck but the result of a well planned operation. In fact, the SLAF’s success in the past two years has been unprecedented and it definitely helped the overall security strategy to weaken the enemy’s offensive capability.

After failing in their attempts in the battlefield, the LTTE almost succeeded in destroying Kfirs on the ground. Had they succeeded in the air attack, the SLAF would have find it extremely difficult to meet the challenge. And the recent LTTE raid on the Trincomalee harbour where they blew up a logistic ship (A 520) underscored the need to be vigilant at all times.

The LTTE wouldn’t hesitate to adopt any strategy as long as it felt it would advance its course. The ongoing attacks on public transport is definitely part of its strategy to pressure the government to return to the negotiating table. Any other government would have called off the military action after the LTTE launched a deliberate campaign targeting civilians, but the Rajapaksa regime has reacted differently. With the operations on the Vanni west (west of A9) coming to a decisive stage, the LTTE is likely to make every effort to hurt the government by causing mayhem in the South.

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