‘Army now holds 10,000 acres down from 38,000 acres’

Jaffna troop strength drastically down before prez polls



Jaffna Commander Maj. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake greeting US Ambassador Atul Keshap at Palaly recently

By Shamindra Ferdinando

In the wake of outgoing UNSG Ban Ki-moon calling for a further reduction of Jaffna peninsula based Army deployments, the military told The Island that the fighting strength there had been substantially reduced along with gradual releasing of land held for security purposes.

The process commenced in Oct 2010 about 18 months after the successful conclusion of the Vanni offensive. The military brought the war to an end in May 2009.

Health Minister and Co-Cabinet Spokesman Dr. Rajitha Senaratne said on Wednesday that a media delegation from Colombo had been given information regarding the vacation of land during a recent visit to Jaffna. Dr. Senaratne responded when The Island sought an account from Military Spokesman Brigadier Roshan Seneviratne regarding the Army giving up land since Oct 2010.

Brigadier Seneviratne said that Jaffna Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake had briefed the visiting journalists on the issue.

During UNSG’s visit to Jaffna, TNA delegations pushed the former South Korean Foreign Minister to take it up.

At the height of the war, Palaly cantonment comprised 11,269 acres. Authoritative sources told The Island that subsequently, the Army had released sections of the cantonment area, thereby bringing the total number of acres returned to civilians so far to 7,210 acres. The Army had been making arrangements to release a further 474 acres from the Palaly cantonment area, sources said, adding that the Palaly airfield, too, was situated within the area under military control.

In addition to the Palaly cantonment area, the Army had held 27,259 acres of land in the Jaffna peninsula at the conclusion of the war though the previous government as well as the incumbent administration gradually released 21,134 acres out of it.

Once the Army released 474 acres, the total number of acres (both Palaly cantonment and other Jaffna bases) will be reduced to less than 10,000 acres.

President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces accused a section of northern politicians of undermining the ongoing efforts made by his government to resettle those who had been displaced due to the conflict. The allegation was made at a meeting with journalists at Janadhipathi Mandiraya on Sept. 2.

At the conclusion of the war in May 2009, there had been 152 battalions deployed under four commands, namely Jaffna (37), Wanni (31), Kilinochchi (42) and Mullaitivu (42). In accordance with re-deployment plan, by Dec 2013, the number of battalions assigned for each command had been reduced with Jaffna given (29), Wanni (29), Kilinochchi (27) and Mullaitivu (19).

There had been further decrease of troop strength since Dec 2013, military sources told The Island.

The previous government had briefed the US regarding the decrease of the troop strength in the Jaffna peninsula as well as returning of land in accordance with overall national reconciliation plan. Authoritative sources said that in June 2006 a few months before the outbreak of Eelam War IV, the Army deployment in northern theatre consisted of 68 battalions, 16 in the Eastern province and six in the South. Sources said that there hadn’t been Army Commands at Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu at that time as both districts were in the LTTE’s hands.

At the outbreak of Eelam War IV in August/Sept 2006, the Army’s northern deployment had been primarily geared to defend the Jaffna peninsula with four Divisions, two each on offensive and defensive posture facing LTTE northern defence line extending from Kilali to Nagarkovil on the Vadamaratchchy east coast.

One-time SF Commander Jaffna, Maj. Gen. Mahinda Hathurusinghe told The Island yesterday that there had been 26,400 officers and men at the time he succeeded Maj. Gen. L.B.R. Mark in Dec 2009. The army strength had been reduced to approximately 14,600 by the time Maj. Gen. Udaya Perera had succeeded Maj. Gen. Hathurusinghe in January 2014.

Maj. Gen. Hathurusinghe emphasized that the Jaffna community was aware of the efforts made by the Army to restore normalcy.

Gradual expansion of Palaly cantonment as well as other bases in the peninsula over the years had been influenced by the growing threat posed by the LTTE, the retired officer said. According to him, there had been as many as 44,000 officers and men deployed in the peninsula at the height of the conflict.

Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government brought Jaffna under its control in Dec 1995. The government liberated the entire peninsula in early 1996. Having captured Elephant Pass in April 2000, the LTTE almost succeeded in defeating the Army in Jaffna. The Army suffered a massive setback in Jaffna in the following year leading to suspension of large scale operations until Oct 2006.

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