Three rapid battle-field victories on the northern front couldn’t have come at a better time for President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. Struggling on the economic front due to mismanagement, waste and corruption at the highest levels of the administration and the world economic downturn, the government depended heavily on a swift victory over the LTTE.
But the ill-fated Dec. 16 offensive directed at Paranthan and Kilinochchi fuelled speculation that the LTTE would turn the tables on the army. Contrary to some expert opinion, the army within three weeks after the debacle took full control of the Vanni battle-field and is poised to finish off Tigers on the eastern flank.
Under Lt. General Sarath Fonseka, undoubtedly the most successful army chief, the army had proved that given the correct leadership the LTTE could be defeated. Spearheaded by the army, the navy and air force and police, particularly the elite STF, played their individual roles to the best of their ability thereby causing the LTTE’s downfall.
But unfortunately Thursday’s assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of the Sunday Leader took the gloss out of the liberation of Elephant Pass on the following day. The hit and run attack on Wickrematunga at Attidiya came close on the heels of the armed raid on the Sirasa Studios at Depanama, Pannipitiya. But to the credit of the armed forces chiefs, they had been able to keep the offensive on track amidst political and economic turmoil.
The war is rapidly coming to an end with the LTTE defences on the eastern flank expected to collapse ahead of the February 14 PC polls. The LTTE defenses at Mullaitivu town are on the verge of collapse with the 59 Division just four kilometres away from the town. Battle-field victories would give a turbo boost to government’s PC polls propaganda campaign.
The LTTE, from a position of strength on the northern theatre had been reduced to a rag-tag force now struggling to resist the army. The LTTE reached the zenith of its military might in 1999-2000 period after forcing the army from Kilinochchi northwards right up to the outskirts of Jaffna town.
In May 2000, the LTTE offered to suspend offensive operations to allow the armed forces and police to vacate the Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna islands.
Its International Secretariat in a statement issued from London on May 7 urged then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government to quit the peninsula or face the consequences. The LTTE warned that the armed forces would have no option but to leave their arms, ammunition and equipment behind.
This ultimatum was made close on the heels of the army fleeing the strategic Elephant Pass base first set up in 1958 and expanded following the July 1983 riots. It was upgraded to battalion-level strength in 1990 before transforming it to massive complex by 2000.
The isolated base received its supplies through Vettileikerni and Nagathevanthurai. The fall of Elephant Pass made Jaffna vulnerable.
The then Army Chief, Lt. General Srilal Weerasooriya, told a hastily arranged press briefing at army headquarters that he ordered the withdrawal from Elephant Pass on April 20. The soft spoken Weerasooriya said that the withdrawal was purely a military decision taken with a view to minimizing losses.
Contrary to his claim, a pull out had been necessitated by a multi-pronged LTTE assault spearheaded by a sea-borne force which threatened to wipe out the entire base.
After evicting the army from Elephant Pass in September/October 1998, the LTTE launched a massive attack on the army base at Paranthan on December 11, 1999. As the army retreated northwards towards Elephant Pass in an attempt to consolidate its hold on the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, a sea-borne LTTE force, after landing on the Vadamarachchi East coast overran Pallai on March 26, 1999.
Once the LTTE entrenched its position at Pallai and cut off army’s overland supply routes from Palaly and Kankesanthurai, the 54 Division, headquartered at Elephant Pass had no option but to vacate.
Although the army played down the loss, it was undoubtedly the worst debacle it ever suffered. The well-equipped 54 Division, the strongest fighting formation at that time, quickly collapsed under LTTE pressure.
The army called off a major offensive code-named Jayasikurui launched in May 1997 to restore the Kandy-Jaffna main supply route in early 1999. The subsequent loss of Elephant Pass forced the army to abandon any fresh plans to restore the overland supply route.
In August, 2006, the LTTE almost succeeded overwhelming the army deployed in the Jaffna peninsula after smashing its way through Muhamalai on the neck of the peninsula. Although the army managed to thwart the LTTE offensive and consolidated its positions across the Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagarkovil line by early September, the LTTE continued to pose a severe threat on the Jaffna front.
General Sarath Fonseka deployed the 57 Division in March 2007 on the western flank of the Vanni region to advance on Kilinochchi. It was an ambitious strategy. No previous commander had made such an attempt. But the tough talking army chief went ahead with his plans even before the army had brought Thoppigala-Narakkamulla area under its control.
In September 2007, Task Force I (TF I) launched operations along the Mannar coast. The TF I was to restore the coastal road from Mannar up to Pooneryn and then push eastwards to liberate Paranthan. Once 57 Division and TF I achieved their objectives in the first week of January, the stage was set for TF I (recently named 58 Division) and the Jaffna based Divisions, 53 and 55 to take on LTTE units holding a 22-kilometre stretch on the A9 between Elephant Pass and Muhamalai.
After a few days of fighting, the army Friday afternoon (9) restored the A9, thereby bringing major ground operations on the western flank to an end.
The rapidity of LTTE’s collapse on the neck of the Jaffna peninsula highlighted its predicament. The LTTE successfully resisted at least four major offensives on the Jaffna front since October 2006 causing heavy losses. But what the LTTE hadn’t anticipated was the army advancing all the way from Mannar up to Elephant Pass, thus cutting off the southern entrance to the Elephant Pass.
The 58 Division crossed the Elephant Pass Friday morning and linked up with 53 and 55 Division troops north of Elephant Pass.
Just hours before the link up, Major Nalinda Kumarasinghe, posthumously promoted to the rank of Colonel, paid the supreme sacrifice. He died in a blast caused by the explosion of a chain of LTTE bombs at Pulopallai. He was the most senior army officer to die in the Vanni offensive.
At the time of his death, Kumarasinghe commanded the 5GW under the Airmobile Brigade. He led the first GW contingent deployed in Haiti under UN command.
The army chief recently told The Sunday Island that the army paid a heavy price to bring the Tigers to their knees.
Although the army held Elephant Pass until April, 2000, it lost the overland main supply route to Jaffna in June 1990. The LTTE evicted the army from some of its bases along the A9 route immediately after fighting erupted in the second week of June with some bases abandoned without a fight.
The bottom line was that the armed forces and police deployed in the Jaffna peninsula had to be supplied by the navy and air force. It was a gigantic task as Sea Tigers operating from bases along the north-eastern coast repeatedly targeted supply convoys, causing considerable damage.
Forces and police personnel coming on leave or returning to bases in the Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna islands had to languish at transit facilities. The LTTE also brought down several aircraft coming down or taking off from Palaly.
Moving government and private cargo to the Jaffna peninsula became a lucrative business with a section of security forces and influential businessmen joining hands to make a fast buck. Domestic airline operators, too, benefited.
The February 2002 CFA arranged by the Norwegian government allowed the armed forces to move convoys carrying troops on the A9 between Omanthai entry/exit point and Jaffna peninsula. But the army never wanted to take a chance by sending unarmed troop convoys across the LTTE-held territory.
The LTTE made its first major attempt to seize Elephant Pass in July, 1991. But troops spearheaded by 6 Sinha Regiment held the base for three weeks until a sea-borne force landed at Vettilaikerni and fought its way to Elephant Pass. The operation codenamed Balawegaya was the largest amphibious action undertaken by Sri Lankan security forces.
During the battle for Elephant Pass, Sinha Regiment rifleman Gamini Kularatne scaled a rolling armour plated LTTE bulldozer and flung a grenade into it at the expense of his life. He immobilized the LTTE vehicle. Had he failed, the beleaguered camp wouldnhave survived until Balavegaya troops reached them.
The then Colonel Sarath Fonseka and now retired Maj. Gen. Anton Wijendra had commanded the 1 and 9 Brigades involved in commanded by Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa. While Wijendra who had held the rank of Colonel at that that time retired as a Major General a few years ago, Balawegaya under then Major Sanath Karunaratne, the senior officer in charge of Elephant Pass during the 1991 battle is a serving Major General.
To facilitate Balavegaya, army Commandos and Special Forces conducted a diversionary attack codenamed Akasa Sena.
With the army taking full control of the area west of the A9 road, the army chief would now go all out at the remaining LTTE bases on the eastern flank. The LTTE now boxed into a triangular space smaller than Thoppigala will find it extremely difficult to meet attacks on several fronts.
The 57 and 58 Divisions are pushing eastwards towards the north-eastern coast gradually taking control of the Paranthan-Mullaitivu (A 35) road while Task Force II, Task Force III and Task Force IV on the eastern flank are advancing northwards while the 59 Division is in the process of encircling Mullaitivu.
The 57 Division is conducting operations in the area south of A 35 and north of Iranamadu tank.
The 55 and 53 Divisions are expected to take the coastal road from Iyakachchi junction towards Mullaitivu.
While advancing on the remaining LTTE strongholds on the eastern flank, the army would have to meet the threat posed by small groups of LTTE cadres operating west of A9 in the liberated area. Two confrontations in the Pompaimadu and Upparuareas last Thursday revealed the presence of such small groups.
Following a confrontation, the 61 Division troops had recovered bodies of five LTTE cadres along with five T-56 weapons, seven T-56 magazines, two hundred and thirty-five rounds of T-56 ammunition, one micro pistol, three micro pistol magazines, one .38 weapon, ninety rounds of .38 ammunition, thirty-nine rounds of micro pistol ammunition, one satellite mobile phone, one CDMA wireless phone, maps of Anuradhapura and Silavaturai.
In a separate confrontation, commandos had recovered two LTTE bodies along with two hand grenades, one motor bicycle and two dog tags following a brief confrontation.
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Sunday Island that the armed forces and police would have to launch counter-insurgency operations once major ground offensives end on the Vanni front. He emphasized the importance of keeping the pressure on the LTTE to ensure that it wouldn’t rear its head again. In this regard intelligence services would have to play a critical role, he asserted.