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Army eyes Pooneryn as Tigers retreat on all fronts

The fall of Pooneryn would be a reality soon. Once the Task Force I (TF I) cuts off the road stretch between Pooneryn and Kilinochchi, the LTTE wouldn’t have any other option but to vacate Sangupiddy. This would pave the way for restoration of the causeway between the Vanni mainland and the Jaffna peninsula.

It would mark the completion of an unbelievably tough task undertaken by the TF I commanded by Brigadier Shavindra Silva. When the TF I reached the Jaffna lagoon, it would speed up the collapse of LTTE resistance west of the A9 road. The TF I’s progress would also facilitate the offensive action carried out by the 57 Division deployed in its right flank. The 57 Division is heading towards Kilinochchi.

The TF I, operating north of Chempankundu is about seven kilometers south of Pooneryn. It had gained control over a 75 kilometre stretch of the 82 kilometre Mannar-Pooneryn A-32 road.

The eventual collapse of LTTE power in the western part of the Vanni region would give Lt. General Sarath Fonseka the means to push eastwards across the A9 road at a point between Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass. The LTTE, struggling to resist four fighting formations (57 Division and three Task Forces), on the western part of the Vanni region, would soon experience a similar situation developing in the area east of the A9.

If the LTTE hadn’t already shifted at least a section of its forces deployed on the Jaffna front to reinforce units battling altogether five fighting formations, it would be soon compelled to withdraw both men and material. The Jaffna frontline stretches for about 12 kilometres on the neck of the Jaffna peninsula. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Island that a major army push eastwards across the A9 north of Paranthan would make LTTE fortifications on the neck of the peninsula useless. The restoration of an overland supply route to the Jaffna peninsula would cause a decisive change in the overall military campaign, he asserted.

The army lost the A9 route to the Jaffna peninsula at the beginning of Eelam War II in June 1990. The security forces and police deployed in the Jaffna peninsula had to depend on the costly sea and air supply routes. Although the Norwegian brokered CFA envisaged the movement of unarmed security forces and police personnel along the A9, it never materialised. The LTTE made two major attempts in early 2000 and August 2006 to cut off the supply lines and isolate the peninsula.

Against this backdrop, it would be pertinent to discuss an attempt to cut off the Jaffna peninsula at a time the LTTE controlled the Jaffna peninsula except Palaly, Kankesanthurai and Elephant Pass and several islands. Had the military strategy spearheaded by war veteran Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne succeeded, the war against the LTTE would have received a turbo boost. They almost succeeded in cutting off the Jaffna peninsula before the LTTE reversed the trap by destroying an isolated navy base at Nagathevanthurai, tasked with disrupting LTTE movements across the Jaffna lagoon. The SLN directed operations against LTTE movements between Punchi Paranthan on the Vanni mainland and Kilali on the Jaffna peninsula. Navy spokesperson, Commander D. K.P.Dassanayake, who had served at Nagathevanthurai, told The Island that they engaged enemy movements regularly, almost on a daily basis. "We were operating under extremely difficult conditions," he said, asserting that their experience there contributed towards the subsequent formation of the elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS).

Under Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda’s leadership, the SBS and the newly formed Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS) have been given a critical role in both offensive and defensive action.

Dassanayake said that during the north-east monsoon, supplies required by the troops based at the isolated Elephant Pass base had to be brought to Comar, situated between Pooneryn junction and K point and then moved overland to Nagathevanthurai before moving them in Inshore Patrol Craft (IPCs) to Elephant Pass. He said that when weather permitted, supplies were brought in at Vettilaikerni on the Mullaitivu coast and moved overland to Elephant Pass. Some supplies were also moved in helicopters, he said.

As the army controlled Elephant Pass as well as Ooriyan and Kombadi points, the LTTE had no option but to move supplies across the Jaffna lagoon, the scene of bloody clashes between the Sea Tigers and the navy.

Rear Admiral Clancy Fernando who succeeded Vice Admiral Ananda Silva on August 1, 1991, when the latter went on leave prior to retirement on November 1, 1991, spearheaded the naval action. The soft talking Navy Chief, a veteran in the service almost missed the opportunity to command the service due to him being called a staunch SLFPer but the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa elevated him to the rank of Vice Admiral. The naval action directed from Nagathevanthurai earned the navy chief the wrath of the LTTE leaders who ordered his assassination in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Charles believed to be the second-in-command of Sea Tigers. An assassin on a motor cycle rammed the Vice Admiral’s car on November 16th near the Taj Samudra as he was on his way to navy headquarters.

During his short stint as the navy chief, Fernando sought to enhance relations with his Indian counterparts. One of the highlights of his visit to India in late January 1992 was his meeting with the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaram. The LTTE blew him up a few months after a landmine blast claimed the lives of Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne, the architects of the siege on the Jaffna peninsula. The August blast crushed any hope of a sustained military campaign against the LTTE. Although, the navy launched operations from Nagathevanthurai, the army didn’t engage in any major offensive action for over a year after the loss of Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne.

A visit to Nagathevanthurai by Fernando’s successor Vice Admiral Mohan Samarasekera early 1993 emphasised the importance of the operation.

Gomin Dayasri will deliver the Clancy Fernando memorial oration at the Women’s International Club on November 16th at 6.30 p.m.

Finally the then Army Chief Lt. General Cecil Waidyaratne ordered "Operation Yal Devi’ in late September/early October 1993 to destroy the Kilali boat points. The army lost about 125 officers and men in the five-day offensive but failed to achieve any strategic objective. The loss of two precious T 55 main battle tanks made the situation worse. But nothing could have been as irrational as returning to Elephant Pass after reaching Kilali. In the second week of November, the LTTE launched a multi-pronged assault on Nagathevanthurai navy base and the army at Pooneryn. Despite taking heavy losses, the attackers forced the navy to abandon its base while the army had to give up a large part of the area under its control.

The attack came amid talks between the UNP government and the LTTE facilitated by the UNHCR to restore the Sangupiddy causeway.

A court of inquiry revealed negligence on the part of the army top brass to take counter measures despite clear evidence of an LTTE build-up against Nagathevanthurai-Pooneryn complex.

For want of a cohesive strategy, successive governments had failed to identify the LTTE threat and take remedial measure. A case in point was the destruction of Army’s 54 Division undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s worst ever military debacle. Although the offensive against 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass took place under different circumstances than the assault on Elephant Pass nine years before, the LTTE proved its superiority by overwhelming a well entrenched force.

 

Fighting elements of the Task Force I operating south of Pooneryn are now about 4.5 kilometres away from Pooneryn-Paranthan (B 69 road).

The 59 Division which liberated the western part of the Kumulamunai town on Tuesday is now 13 kilometres south of Mullaitivu and 4.5 kilometres west of Alampil, a major Sea Tiger stronghold.

The 59 Division has reached the outskirts of Ottiyamalai, situated just 5 kilometres east of Nadunkerni town.

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