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How the war was won

Last Thursday’s bloody battle at Anandapuram on the eastern flank brought an end to organized LTTE resistance in the Puthukkudiyirippu area in the Mullaitivu district. The 58 Division troops had fought their way into heavily defended Anandapuram after 53 and 55 Divisions sealed off the area the previous day. The latest loss of territory would thwart any attempt on the part of the LTTE to hold off the army outside the civilian safety zone on the Mullaitivu coast.

By Thursday evening, the army collected bodies of 31 LTTE cadres along with 50 T-56 assault rifles, two rocket propeller grenade launchers, two multi purpose machine guns, one M-16 rifle, two radio communication sets, one GPS device, and one map. The army also recovered one armour plated truck and one speed boat.

The 53 Division and Task Force VIII Friday extended their forward positions into the remaining LTTE enclave in Puthukkudiyiruppu East. After day long clashes, the army recovered debris of 130 mm artillery piece recently destroyed in a Kfir strike along with one multi purpose machine gun (MPMG), one crew cab, two motorbikes, five T-56 assault rifles, and one radio communication set. Had one bothered to study the entire list of arms, ammunition and equipment seized from the LTTE, last week’s recoveries wouldn’t mean much.

But recovery of five vehicles including one bullet proof limousine used by LTTE leaders, including Prabhakaran, north-east of Puthukudirippu on Friday surprised defence circles. The army also came across an air-conditioned bungalow following a series of bloody confrontations in the Puthukudirippu and Analankulam areas. The bungalow and vehicles had been set ablaze before the LTTE retreated.   

Had the army, navy, airforce and police failed in the drive against the Tigers, the Rajapaksa administration would have been in severe trouble as the economic crisis, waste and corruption would have taken centre stage.          

Last week’s battle also wiped out the LTTE’s much touted ``conventional fighting capability.’’ When the Tigers overran the army at Elephant Pass in April 2000, interested parties including the media were quick to assert that the Tigers had acquired conventional fighting capacity. Although the then army Chief Lt. General Srilal Weerasooriya played down that defeat, the army never really recovered from that humiliation until Lt. General Sarath Fonseka took the army’s command from Lt. General Shantha Kottegoda shortly after the last presidential election in November 5, 2005.

The bloodiest phase of the Eelam war didn’t prompt Fonseka, undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s most successful army commander, to even consider withdrawing from the country’s UN-led force deployed in Haiti.

The FDL (forward defence line) concept would be obsolete once major operations come to an end. The FDL as in the case of Muhamalai was meant to thwart a conventional type assault using artillery pieces and mortars. The army changed its defence strategy to meet the threat posed by small groups of LTTE cadres who may operate for a few months before being wiped out. There would be significant changes in the deployment patterns, too, particularly in the case of the Jaffna peninsula. Before the liberation of Elephant Pass, the army maintained four Divisions including 53 and 55 which have moved to the Vanni.

To meet the LTTE challenge, the army rapidly bolstered its strength to 180,000 officers and men with the Light Infantry, Sinha, Gemunu, Gajaba, Vijayaba and the Sri Lanka National Guard absorbing most of the fresh recruits. The armour and artillery, too, received a tremendous boost with unprecedented increase in firepower. The army chief also created the Mechanised Infantry Brigade and Special Presidential Guard as part of the expansion. To facilitate the recruitment, the required qualifications to join the army were kept at the lowest possible level. Whatever their educational qualifications and family background, the rural youth showed what they could do given proper training, equipment and leadership.

The army also had to overcome the threat posed by infiltration by the LTTE and also a small group of officers and men on the terrorists’ payroll.

Unlike in the previous phases of the war, the government media didn’t go under LTTE-led propaganda onslaught. The armed forces, too, engaged in a successful media campaign with the army media, particularly its website playing a critical role.

After liberating Paranthan and Kilinochchi on the A9 in the first week of January this year, the army took less than 14 weeks to crush LTTE resistance east of the road. It is now on the verge of achieving an unparalleled victory over the LTTE trapped on the Mullaitivu coast having reached the seashore following a series of bloody battles in the Eastern and Northern provinces over the past two years. It is now poised to finish off the LTTE taking refuge among the civilians trapped in safety zone on the Mullaitivu coast.

With the area under its control now being reduced to less than 20 sq. km., the LTTE will not be able to resist the army in a conventional battle or pierce the security cordon around their last base.

The government went ahead with the offensive despite heavy international pressure. Interested parties repeatedly zeroed-in on Sri Lanka’s human rights record as part of their efforts to distract the government.

The reluctance to trigger a major battle in the midst of civilians trapped in the area is unlikely to give breathing space to the LTTE. Once the army punched a hole in LTTE defences, the civilians, estimated by the army to be around 60,000 would have the opportunity to escape. The LTTE, struggling to survive in the face of a massive build-up right around the safety zone is not likely to make an organized bid to retain its human shield. The LTTE resistance is expected to hopefully collapse before the forthcoming Sinhala and Hindu New Year.

When the LTTE triggered Eelam War IV in August, 2006 by directing its largest ever offensive at the strategic Trincomalee navy base and Kilali- Muhamalai-Nagarkovil frontline, it controlled approximately 15,000 sq. km. of territory.

Despite paying a heavy price, the army under Fonseka’s leadership has kept its offensive on track. Every time the LTTE and its supporters had felt that the offensive could be thwarted and lost territory regained, the army had sprung surprises.

With the battle in its final stage it would be pertinent to examine the army’s strategy which gradually evicted the LTTE from the East where it had several major bases with overland and sea access to its Vanni strongholds. In the midst of the heavy fighting in the East, the army launched its Vanni campaign, thereby forcing the LTTE to split its resources to resist the army on multiple fronts.

The LTTE launched its offensive with a multi pronged attack on army and navy bases in the Muttur and Trincomalee area in the first week of August 2006. Although the LTTE had initially overwhelmed the armed forces, the army quickly moved in additional forces into the theatre. By the end of the first week, the LTTE retreated, thereby paving the way for largest ever combined security forces campaign.

Had the LTTE been allowed to succeed at Muttur the outcome of the Eelam War IV would have been different. The displacement of over 42,000 Muslims in this predominately Muslim area could have triggered an exodus of Muslims in other parts of the East, but the armed forces’ courageous response thwarted a major calamity.

Interestingly, the battle triggered by the LTTE at Mavil-aru, too, came to an end in the first week with the LTTE being driven out of the area.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a veteran infantryman and one of the Gajaba Regiment pioneers told The Sunday Island that battles triggered by the LTTE at Mavil-aru in June-July 2006 and Muttur which preceded a large scale attack on the Muhamalai frontline in the second week of August 2006 compelled the government to go on the offensive. Had we ignored the opportunity, it would have given the LTTE an immense advantage, he said.

After stabilizing the Muttur area, the army directed an operation at LTTE-held Vakarai. Some of the bloodiest battles in the eastern theatre took place in this region. Despite being weakened by Karuna’s split, the LTTE had a strong force - artillery, mortars and even SAM-14 heat seeking missiles at its disposal. The operation launched on October 28, 2006 brought Verugal, Kathiraveli, Pannichankerni, Komathalamadu and Vakarai hospital under government control. This operation launched close on the heels of a humiliating defeat suffered by the army on the Muhamalai front ended on January 1. The LTTE retreated leaving two 152 mm artillery pieces, two 122mm mortars and one 120 mm mortar among other weaponry.

The severity of the Muhamalai losses fuelled reports of a doomsday scenario. The LTTE too must have felt that the army wouldn’t be able sustain large scale operations both on the eastern and northern theatres following the Muhamalai setback. They were proved wrong.

On February 24, 2007, the army launched an offensive to bring the Chenkalady-Badulla road under its control after 14 years. It came to an end on April 11, 2007 with the liberation of Kalladi, Unnachchi and Aiyathimalai.

To facilitate the offensive, the elite Special Task Force launched a major clearing operation on January 4, 2007, to neutralize the threat posed by the LTTE based in the Kanchikudichchi-aru jungles. The LTTE had established a strong network of bases in the area consequent to limited STF operations conducted in October and December 2006 under the supervision of the then STF Commandant Nimal Lewke.

On April 14, 2007, the army launched operations against the LTTE’s major base at Narakkamulla-Thoppigala area. The army slowly and steadily overcame LTTE resistance and about 10 days later mounted the final phase of its offensive. Fighting in extremely difficult conditions, the infantry, Special Forces and Commandos brought the area under their control by July 12, 2007. The LTTE, despite holding well defended positions advantageous to them failed to stop the army advance.

While the battle was on for Thoppigala, the army on July 6, 2007, liberated Muttur West along with the area south of the Trincomalee harbour, Upparu and Mannirasakulam.

The liberation of the impregnable Thoppigala-Narakkamulla area brought an end to major LTTE bases in the East. The ICRC announcement that it wouldn’t accept bodies of LTTE cadres killed in action in the East for transfer to the LTTE underscored the LTTE’s collapse there.

To the credit of the army, despite severe constraints even before the liberation of Thoppigala, it opened up a front east of the A9. The newly raised 57 Division which launched operations in March, 2007, targeting the Kilinochchi town scored its first major battlefield victory on March 24, 2008, when troops liberated the Madhu church area. Despite fierce resistance and a series of bloody counter attacks, the Division conducted offensive operations for almost 13 months to register its first major victory.

Once the LTTE lost Madhu, the offensive gathered momentum. The 57 Division troops liberated Palampiddi on May 16, 2008, Mundumurippu (May 23), Periyamadhu (June 15), Naddankandal (July 11), Kalvilan (August 13), Thunnukai and Uilankulam (August 22), Mallavi (September 2), Akkarayankulam tank bund (October 29), Akkarayankulam (November 5), Kokavil (December 1), Terumurikandy junction (December 10), Kilinochchi (January 2, 2009), Ramanathapuram, (Jan 17) and Vishvamadu (January 28).

Major General Jagath Dias succeeded Brigadier Sumith Manawadu as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 57 Division at an early stage of the offensive. The Division after taking Kilinochchi liberated Ramanathapuram and Vishvamadu east of the A9. Since then, it had been primarily engaged in clearing operations in the liberated area.

The 57 Division played a critical role in the army chief’s overall strategy to destroy the enemy power in the Vanni theatre. Recently it suspended offensive operations due to space (??????) constraints on the eastern flank. Military Spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said that only a section of the fighting formations were involved in the past few weeks of fighting.

While the 57 Division was battling it out in the Vanni West, Fonseka ordered the army to liberate Silavaturai and adjoining villages south of Mannar in the first week of September, 2007. Once the army secured the Silavathurai coastline, the newly established Task Force I (TF I) launched offensive operations along the north-western coast in September 2007. Under Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s command, the TF I was given Herculean task of clearing the 82km Mannar-Pooneryn coastal road, restore the ferry across the Jaffna lagoon and then cross the A9 at Paranthan.

Despite taking heavy losses, the LTTE resisted the TF I fiercely. The force battled the LTTE for nine months before it secured its first major battlefield victory. Silva led his troops to Adampan on May 9, 2008. But once the army brought Adampan under its full control, it made rapid progress. The TF I liberated Mullikandal, Minnaniranchan and Marattikannaddi (June 24),the Mannar rice bowl (June 29),linked-up with 57 Division at Periyamadu (June 30), Vidattaltivu (July 16), Illuppaikkadavai (August 2),Vellankulam(August 12),Mulankavil and Pallavarayankaddu (August 12),Nachchikuda (August 21),Maniyankulam(October 16),Vannerikulam(October 20),Nochchimoddai (October 28),Jeyapuram (October 29),Nachchikudah (October 29),Kiranchi (November 10), Devil’s Point and Vallaipadu (November 13),Pooneryn (November 15),Sinna-Paranthan (December 23),Nalanawakulam (December 26), Paranthan (January 1,2009),Murasumoddai (January 8),Dharmapuram (January 15),Vishvamadu (January 28),Thevipuram (February 20) and Iranapalai junction (March 17).

The 57 Division and TF I had been involved in the liberation of strategically situated Vishvamadu area believed to be main LTTE base east of the A9.

After taking Pooneryn, the TF I had moved east on a wide front and threatened to cut off Elephant Pass. As TF I troops battled their way towards Elephant Pass, the 53 and 55 Divisions commanded by Brigadiers Prasanna Silva and Kamal Gunaratna advanced across the Muhamalai line. The 53 deployed south of the A9 and 55 north of the A9 pushed swiftly towards Elephant Pass and the enemy retreated.

Then the TF I had advanced southwards of Paranthan to draw out LTTE units defending Kilinochchi town against the 57 Division. The TF which had taken a deadly route from the north-western coast to Anandapuram a few kilometers away from the Mullaitivu coast would go down in the history as the fighting formation to take the longest route.

While the TF I advanced along the Paranthan-Mullaitivu road taking the entire north of the road under its control, the 57 advanced on TF 1’s right flank. Since then, Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s formation had been categorized as the 58 Division.

The 55 Division had taken the coastal road towards Mullaitivu and is now positioned just outside the civilian safety zone. The 53 Division is engaged in the final battle on the eastern flank.

The liberation of the Mannar coastline helped efforts to thwart LTTE attempts to bring in urgently needed supplies from Tamil Nadu.

In January 2008, under Brigadier Nandana Udawatte’s command, the newly created 59 Division mounted operations targeting Mullaitivu, on the north-eastern coast. The 59 Division troops marched across Anandakulam and Nagacholai forest reserves. Udawatte took a year to reach Mullaitivu after overcoming some of the bloodiest counter attacks faced by the army in the entire Eelam War.

The 59 Division scored its first major battlefield victory on May 30 when troops captured Munagam base. The Division captured Michael (July 4), Sugandan (July 27) and Jeevan (August 16) bases before taking the area west of the Nayaru lagoon on August 21. It also captured Gajabapura (October 23), Kumulamunai (November 11), Otiyamalai (November 29), Mulliyawalai (December 26) and Mullaitivu (January 25, 2009).

The army chief also launched the newely raised Task Force II, Task Force III, Task Force IV and Task Force VIII. The TF II commanded by Brigadier Rohana Bandara launched operation in June 2008 from an area south of Palamoddai. It was the first fighting formation to maneuver along the west-east axis across the A9.

The TF II liberated Navvi (July 11), Puliyankulam (December 4), Kanagarayankulam (December 5) and Udayarkattukulam tank bund (January 21, 2009)

The TF III commanded by Brigadier Sathyapriya Liyanage which launched operations from Vannivilankulam in November 2008 liberated Mankulam (November 17), Olumadu (November 25) and Ampakamam (December 15). It was the second fighting formation to manouever along the west east axis across the A9.

The TF IV launched in December 2008 liberated Nedunkerni (December 20), Oddussudan (January 4, 2009) and Keridattadu (January 12). Commanded by Colonel Nishantha Wanniarachchi, it was the second fighting formation deployed on the Mullaitivu front.

The Eelam War IV brought to the fore a new generation of battlefield commanders from the rank of GOCs downwards. The army chief’s bold decision not solely to depend on seniority paved the way for some dynamic young men to command Brigades and Battalions. The appointment as Commando Regiment chief Shavendra Silva as the GOC of 58 Division is a case in point. Unlike his predecessors, Fonseka regularly visited operational areas to review battlefield progress and keep the offensive on track.

Although the LTTE mounted some major counter attacks causing considerable losses and in some instances used chemicals on the advancing troops, the army top brass kept the offensive on course.

The deployment of Special Forces, Commandos and the infantry in keeping with new strategy brought success. The army stunned the LTTE with covert operations behind their lines. Operating in small groups, elite troops caused havoc among the defenders. But nothing could be as important as the new recruits who answered the army’s call to join the battle against the LTTE. The army chief has paid a glowing tribute to these recruits whose contribution made the final victory possible.

Contribution made by other support services from Transport to Signals must be warmly acknowledged. The Directorate of Military Intelligence too played an important role in the campaign since the break-up of the LTTE in March 2004. The DMI took the LTTE challenge head-on and thereby facilitated the overall offensive. The role played by the army engineers was as important as any other. They successfully met the challenging task of clearing areas and the road network to facilitate security forces movements and civilian resettlement.

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