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The Army wins the Day

A recent battle-field setback suffered by the army fuelled speculation that the LTTE is about to switch from a defensive to an offensive mode. The December 16 battle between the army and the LTTE ended with the LTTE claiming victory. Pro-LTTE TamilNet estimated the number of troops killed in action at 170 and over 400 wounded in simultaneous battles on the Vanni and Jaffna fronts.

Although the losses suffered by the army wasn't as high as claimed by the LTTE and the Opposition, the 57 Division and the Task Force I (TF I) on the Vanni front and 53 and 55 Divisions on the Jaffna front suffered sizeable losses. The LTTE returned dozens of bodies of officers and men in body bags to the newly set up army check point at Puliyankulam through the ICRC.

Critics asserted that the army's failure at Kilinochchi would de-rail the entire combined security forces campaign in the north. This appraisal was primarily based on an exclusive interview given by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, in which he expressed confidence in defending Kilinochchi.

In an e-mail interview with the Chenni-based Tamil magazine Nakkeeran, the LTTE leader, while acknowledging the loss of some of his strongholds on the Vanni front, declared that capturing their administrative capital Kilinochchi was still a distant dream for the government.

"The Sri Lankan forces have entered parts of our homeland and are stationed in close proximity to the Kilinochchi town. But, capturing Kilinochchi is just a day-dream of (Sri Lankan President) Mahinda Rajapaksa."

The Rajapaksa administration pursued the military option amidst heavy international pressure, a struggling economy and a bunch of coalition politicians squandering taxpayer's money.

Then there were reports of the LTTE having what veteran political cum military affairs commentator D. B. S. Jeyaraj called three broad defensive rings around and within the areas controlled by them in the north. He said the first ring was encompassing the whole territory under LTTE control. The second was around the territory to the east of the A9 road and the third was around the strategically important areas in east Vanni, including access to beachfronts.

Jeyaraj asserted that it would be foolish on the part of the LTTE to keep on fighting a defensive war as the army was at the gates of the last defence ring after penetrating the second line of defence. He acknowledged that the first defence ring had been virtually demolished.

Jeyaraj's comments published on December 20, just four days after the debacle in the northern theatre raised serious concerns among government and a section of security forces. He estimated the total number of LTTE cadres killed so far on the northern front at 4,500 with 3,000 to 3,500 of them being inexperienced fighters.

He placed the number of well trained experienced cadres ready to go on the offensive at about 12,000 to 15,000. This was a frightening prospect.

A section of the government was concerned that the army was going to miss Commander-in-Chief President Mahinda Rajapaksa's December deadline. Had that happened, it would have been a heavy blow to the ruling coalition's PC polls campaign in the Central and Wayamba Provinces. With elections set for February 14, the President needed a major victory and the liberation of Kilinochchi couldn't have come at a better time.

Rajapaksa declared last September that the army would hopefully take Kilinochchi by December, 2008. This assertion was made at a meeting with editors of national newspapers and publishers and no one would have expected the army to meet the challenge against the backdrop of December 16 setback.

Despite heavy resistance, Army Chief Lt. General Sarath Fonseka, a tough task master relentlessly pursued offensive action. The 57 Division and TF I continued operations on a wide front until they were ready to launch a large scale offensive late last week. After a series of SLAF bombing raids targeting well fortified LTTE positions shielding the Iranamadu-Kilinochchi-Paranthan stretch of the A9, the two fighting formations swung into action.

After 48 hours of intense confrontations, the 57 Division and the TF I commanded by Major General Jagath Dias and Brigadier Shavendra Silva, respectively, linked up just north of Kilinochchi on Friday. It was perhaps one of the greatest battle-field victories achieved against tremendous odds.

The 57 Division comprising four Brigades had assaulted Kilinochchi from the South and South-western boundaries while the TF I advanced from their positions in North (north of Paranthan) and North-west.

The LTTE moved its main base to Kilinochchi in September, 1998, during Chandrika Kumaratunga's tenure after it overran the army base there. The army captured Kilinochchi exactly two years before after giving up a large chunk of A9 north of Vavuniya right up to Elephant Pass in mid 90 within a week after the eruption of Eelam War II.

The loss of Kilinochchi in September 1998 paved the way for a massive LTTE onslaught on the army in the entire northern theatre. By the time the army halted the offensive, the LTTE had gained strategically vital ground on the neck of the Jaffna peninsula after overrunning Elephant Pass while evicting the army from all its bases located both east and west of the A9.

Had the army swiftly realized the threat posed on its deployment between Elephant Pass and Kilinochchi after the LTTE overran a section of its defences at Kilinochchi in February 1998, the enemy could have been stopped. But unfortunately the then army top brass allowed the LTTE to take the upper hand and within two years, the 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass was smashed.

It was undoubtedly the army's worst ever defeat. The rest is history.

Ten years after the Kilinochchi debacle, the army under Fonseka's command had regained a large part of the territory it had lost a decade ago on the northern front and is now poised to overrun remaining LTTE bases on the neck of the peninsula and the area east of the A9.

Shortly before President Mahinda Rajapaksa officially announced the liberation of Kilinochchi, Fonseka told The Sunday Island that the army would move against the remaining LTTE strongholds. On one flank, the TF I would advance towards Elephant Pass, the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula while fighting formations crisscross the area east of the A9 with Mullaitivu on the north-eastern coast being the main target.

The President paid glowing tribute to army, navy, air force and police including the STF and the Civil Defence Force for a victories effect against the LTTE.

The navy succeeded in blowing up eight 'floating arsenals' on the high seas in 2006 and 2007 and one vessel close to Mullaitivu coast recently.

Had Fonseka (in April 2006) and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (December 2006) perished in LTTE suicide attacks, the outcome of the Eelam War IV would have been different.

Fonseka said that that Elephant Pass was just two kilometres north of TF 1's forward positions. The TF I is believed to be positioned about four kilometres north of Paranthan town and is pushing towards Elephant Pass.

This will force the LTTE force deployed across 12 km. wide stretch of land from Kilali to Nagarkovil on the Vadamaradchchi east coast to either retreat across Elephant Pass towards east of the A9 or be sandwiched by TF I and 53/55 Divisions.

He said that the 59 Division had breached the LTTE built earth bund ahead of Mullaitivu Friday afternoon and was now positioned just 5 kilometres south of Mullaitivu and were approaching an LTTE air strip, believed to be the largest built in the Vanni region, situated in the Mulliyawalai area.

Responding to our queries, he said that the battle-field victories were won at a heavy price. "My officers and men fought courageously against tremendous odds," he said, adding that of the 16,000 men wounded in action, 12,000 received shrapnel injuries due to heavy mortar and artillery fire.

The LTTE couldn't have fired what he called ``a rain of mortar and artillery'' without having a steady supply of ammunition through its overseas networks. Had the enemy been denied supplies, the army's losses would have been much less, he asserted.

Addressing a gathering of ministers and officials at the Presidential Secretariat Friday afternoon, Fonseka said that the LTTE had been holed up in an area 40 by 40 kilometres or in other words 1,600 square kilometres east of the A9. But the area included some lagoons and the actual LTTE deployment was much less, he said.

The tough talking Fonseka who had repeatedly vowed to finish off the Tigers before he leaves his office told The Sunday Island that the army had proved its capability. He said that their war of attrition had handsomely paid off. He explained that territorial gains were made after the LTTE lost hundreds of cadres in operations conducted on the Vanni front since early 2007.

"We drew out many LTTE units and wiped them out he said," underscoring the difficulty in pursing an offensive for over a two-year period. He explained that the Vanni campaign was launched before major battles on the eastern front came to an end in June/July 2007 with the fall of LTTE stronghold at Narakamulla-Thoppigala in the east.

He paid a glowing tribute to the SLAF for boldly supporting the ground offensive with an unprecedented campaign.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Sunday Island that once the army had liberated major civilian centers held by the LTTE, security forces would move on to the next stage-a counter-insurgency campaign targeting terrorists operating among the civilian population. It wouldn't be an easy task, he said, emphasizing the importance of denying the enemy a rear base for operations. The bottom line is that the LTTE wouldn't have a defended area where it would deploy mortars and artillery, he said.

With the army consolidating its positions west of the A9 road, from Omanthai, former entry/exit point to an area about four kilometres north of Paranthan on the main supply route, LTTE units deployed on the Muhamalai front wouldn't have an area to maneuver. After resisting 53 and 55 Divisions since August/September 2006, the LTTE force comprised of experienced cadres was facing an unprecedented threat from two flanks.

The Defence Secretary said that heavy concentration of troops would prevent the LTTE from making a successful attempt to breakout across Elephant Pass had it remained there until TF I reached Elephant Pass.

Both Defence Secretary and the army chief asserted that the LTTE wouldn't survive battles on the Jaffna front and the area both sides of Paranthan-Mullaitivu road (A 35). Having linked-up north of Kilinochchi, the 57 Division and TF I would now join TF II, TF III, TF IV and the 59 Division advancing on LTTE strongholds.

The LTTE struggling on the Vanni East battleground in the face of a rapidly increasing threat on all its flanks is facing its biggest defeat. Says Fonseka: "We are going to relegate them into the dustbin of history.''

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