The Sri Lanka army yesterday brought the war against the LTTE a step closer to the finish when troops sealed of the north-eastern coast trapping what is left of the LTTE’s fighting cadre and its leadership. Control of the entire coast marked the total destruction of the Sea Tigers who fought ferociously for over two decades and at one point threatened to overwhelm the Trincomalee-KKS lifeline for forces based in the Jaffna peninsula.
The 58 Division (formerly Task Force I) in the early hours of yesterday linked-up with the 59 Division north of Mullaitivu thereby denying the LTTE access to the sea along the entire north-east coast.
As troops of the 58 Division which launched its offensive on the north-western coast at Mannar in March 2007 reached the frontline troops of the 59 Division north of the Wadduvakkal causeway at 4 a.m, yesterday, the LTTE had retreated inland for what is widely believed to be its final stand.
Spearheaded by the army, the navy and air force conducted non stop offensive operations including covert action which gradually crippled the LTTE and crushed its wherewithal to wage war.
Intelligence sources asserted that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, his intelligence chief Pottu Amman and Sea Tiger leader Soosai and about 200 LTTE cadres including many suicide cadres had taken up position in an area ringed by troops. As this was being written, the trapped group was under pressure to surrender unconditionally or face the consequences. Who would carry out the final assault? Would it be the 58 Division or the 53 Division now poised for the kill?
The LTTE leadership was believed likely to fight to a finish without facing the humiliation of being paraded before the nation, senior officers said.
Among some 4,300 persons who surrendered to 58 Division on Friday were wives, children and close relatives of LTTE commanders. A sizeable number of LTTE cadres, too, gave themselves up, they said.
The 53 Division advancing southwards along the eastern bank of the Nanthikadal lagoon had rescued over 4,550 civilians on Friday.
Yesterday’s link up between 58 and 59 Divisions was the culmination of a multi-pronged operation launched on May 12. To facilitate the action, the army brought Brigadier Prasanna Silva who had been the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 55 Division to the lead 59 Division tasked with making a breakthrough north of Mullaitivu.
Army Chief Lt. General Sarath Fonseka moved Brigadier Silva, a veteran soldier and one of the key tacticians to 59 Division, to undertake this responsibility. He was tasked to lead the 59 Division formerly commanded by Brigadier Nandana Udawatte to pierce the LTTE’s earth bund cum ditch north of Wadduvakal causeway.
This was essentially a critical phase in the destruction of the remaining LTTE fighting cadre and liberation of the civilians trapped on the Mullaitivu coast. Silva, a Special Forces veteran had been in the forefront of many battles, particularly the liberation of the Eastern Province. He made his move on May 12.
It was a challenging task but the 59 Division credited with the liberation of the Mullaitivu town last January achieved it. It was raised by Lieut. Gen. Fonseka to regain the coastal town, once the home to army’s 25 Brigade overrun by the LTTE in July 1996.
It would be pertinent to mention that the 59 Division, since it launched operations from Weli Oya in January 2008, caused immense losses on the LTTE before overrunning Mullaitivu on January 25, 2008. Under Brigadier Nandana Udawatte’s command, the Division fought it way across the Anandakulam and Nagacholai forest reserves capturing major LTTE bases.
Had the 59 Division swiftly crushed an LTTE counter offensive launched on the Independence Day this year, the war would have come to an end a few weeks earlier. The LTTE offensive spearheaded by suicide attacks had threatened to cause irreparable damage but the Army Chief acted swiftly and decisively to halt the LTTE advance and stabilize the front.
Since then, the 59 Division remained on a holding role until Brig. Silva assumed the command. After careful planning, the 6 SLLI (Sri Lanka Light Infantry) and 12 SLLI operating under the 59 Division had crossed the first line of LTTE defences on May 12. The Division had made elaborate preparations before the infantry swung into action.
Once they had overcome the initial LTTE obstacles, Brig. Silva inducted elite Special Forces to spearhead the assault. Although the LTTE couldn’t have been unaware of the impending assault across the causeway, the defenders quickly gave in. On that day, the 59 Division had secured about 300 metres forcing the LTTE to retreat leaving behind some of their arms and ammunition.
In a desperate bid to delay the advance the LTTE launched three suicide attacks. That night, the LTTE mounted a two-pronged assault on the 59 Division causing sizeable losses. An LTTE cadre operating at least one of the explosives packed boat used in the attack had triggered a massive explosion near troops on the beach.
But the 59 Division fought ferociously to thwart the assault which involved a group of LTTE cadres coming ashore in close proximity to the northern most positions held by the 59 Division. It was the last organized assault carried out by the Tigers before its entire command and control structure collapsed.
The capture of the causeway and the area adjacent to it was quickly exploited by the people held hostage by the LTTE to escape. The seizure of the Wadduvakal causeway also helped the 59 Division to curb LTTE attacks on civilians fleeing towards the army lines. There had been only a few who escaped on the first day.
But as the 53 and 58 Divisions commanded by Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunarathne and Brig. Shavindra Silva, respectively, stepped up pressure on the beleaguered LTTE defenders forcing them to retreat, thousands of men, women and children fled across the Nanthikandal lagoon to reach the 59 Division. Compared to the number of civilians received by the 59 Division deployed just south of the no firing zone, the 53 and 58 Divisions had received only a few.
Among those who escaped, as on previous occasions, were many LTTE cadres. Although some of them hadn’t declared their true identity, they had taken the opportunity to flee the organization. The number of LTTE cadres now held in welfare centres could be in thousands including middle level commanders.
A directive given by Sea Tiger commander Soosai amidst last week’s battle revealed the imminent collapse of the group’s fighting cadre. Soosai had directed his men to destroy the remaining military assets. Captain D. N. S. C. Kalubowila, the senior officer in charge of the Fast Attack Craft (FAC) flotilla told The Sunday Island Thursday night (May 14) that this was a sure sign of the imminent collapse of the group.
The next day, the navy deployed off Karayamullivaikkal on the north-eastern coast at around 3 a.m, detected an overloaded fibreglass dinghy carrying a group of people.
Navy Chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda yesterday told The Sunday Island that the capture of Soosai’s wife again underscored the importance of a naval cordon in place off Mullaitivu.
The boat carrying Soosai’s wife had been launched at about 2. 30 a.m. from a point close to Jordanian ship Farah III which had run aground near Karayamullivaikkal in December 2006. The navy had allowed the boat, initially believed to be a suicide craft, to take a north easterly direction before firing two shots to force it to halt.
The boat powered by one 15 horse power OBM had been operated by an experienced LTTE cadre. The arrest had been made by the FAC flotilla about 2.5 nautical miles off the land. Although the navy didn’t immediately identify Soosai wife, the officers at the scene had recognized that they were different from the ordinary civilians. Following initial checking, the group had been taken onboard a trawler and transferred to Chalai where the identification was made.
Captain D. K. P. Dassanayake speaking to The Sunday Island from Chalai yesterday said that Soosai wife, Satyadevi, was the sister of Shankar, one of Prabhakaran’s close associates killed at Nelliady in 1982. Dassanayake, in charge of small boat operations on the Mullaitivu theatre asserted that the boatman was making an attempt to reach Indian waters when the navy swooped down on the group.
Responding to our queries, he said that they had enough fuel, a map and global positioning system to reach the Indian waters. "They had enough money to secure accommodation before being taken to a previously arranged position," he said.
Although Satyadevi, a former Sea Tiger cadre had initially refused to divulge her identity, once the navy produced irrefutable evidence of her identity she broke down. Under interrogation she had said that her husband was alive but flatly refused to discuss the whereabouts of Prabhakaran.
Dassanayake said that among the 11 persons taken from the boat were the family of Ruban and Suda, two veteran LTTE cadres.
Along with Satyadevi, the navy detained Soosai’s daughter Sivanesan Mani Arasu, son Sivanesan Sindhu, sister-in- law C Thavarasa (58), elder brother’s son Silanbarasa, Ruban’s wife N. Sivanesan (25). The navy also recovered Rs. 575,000/ and two and a half kgs of gold.
While the army battled what is left of once formidable LTTE fighting cadre, the international community made a frantic bid to force President Mahinda Rajapaksa to halt the offensive. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa last Thursday told The Sunday Island that the LTTE was on the verge of collapse and nobody could be allowed to throw a lifeline to sinking Tigers. The statement came close on the heels of US President Barack Obama’s call to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to stop fighting.
The Security Council also voiced "deep concern" about reports of continued heavy shelling by government forces in the conflict zone — reports that the Sri Lankan government has repeatedly denied.
The statement, which was drafted by France, Britain and Austria with the backing of the United States, also expressed support for the "personal involvement" of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whom the government has invited to go to Sri Lanka.
But what really surprised political analysts was the readiness of the US to discuss a report on Israeli army operations directed against Hamas in exchange for discussing Sri Lanka. Western council members had agreed to hold a brief session earlier on Wednesday on a U.N. board of inquiry report about Israel’s January war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip that was critical of Israel.
The United States and its allies on the council had initially balked at the idea of discussing the Gaza report. The council also issued a very brief statement about the Gaza report, expressing the council’s "concern" about its findings.