9th July 2000
For the Tiger guerrillas, the month of "BlackJuly," the first in the new millennium, has arrived with added significance.
The year 2000 marks the LTTE's Silver Jubilee. Velupillai Prabhakaran's own guerrilla group was named Tamil New Tigers, (TNT) after he broke off from his erstwhile comrade-in-arms, Uma Maheswaran and the People's Liberation Organisation of Thamileelam (PLOTE). It was on May 5, 1976, that the TNT changed its name to Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Hence the first "Black July" during the Silver Jubilee.
Even if the two events did not come into much public focus, perhaps due to the ongoing censorship, the defence establishment has been fully conscious of the move. That explained the stepped up security in the City and other key towns. Even security around VIPs and VVIPs was considerably enhanced and their movements restricted.
As for the troubled north, Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, Major General Sarath Fonseka, decided to spring a surprise on the LTTE. He launched an operation at dawn on July 4, a day ahead of the 13th death anniversary of the first Black Tiger, the commando equivalent of the LTTE.
Troops broke out of the well fortified defences in the north eastern coastal village of Nagerkovil, advanced almost a kilometre to smash LTTE bunker lines. After two days of bitter battles, they returned to their original positions. Army officials say 39 Tiger cadres and four troops, including an officer, were killed in the incident.
The unfortunate ethnic violence that broke out on July 23, after 13 soldiers were killed in a land mine explosion in Tinnelvely in Jaffna (on July 13, 1983) was how the so called Black July derived its name. The horrendous events during the violence left a large number of Tamils dead and billions of rupees worth of their property destroyed.
On July 5, 1987, Black Tiger cadre "Captain Millar," drove a truck laden heavily with explosives into the compound of the Nelliady Central College, in the Jaffna peninsula. It was here that troops engaged in "Operation Liberation," to capture the Vadamarachchi sector were billeted. This operation was to become a major event that was precursor to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987. Some of the major incidents that mark the "Black July" calendar of the LTTE are given in the box story appearing on this page.
"Black July" in the current year comes in the backdrop of a number of significant events. It began in November, last year, when the LTTE launched its "Operation Oyatha Alaikal," (or Unceasing Waves). The first phase was focused on security forces installations in the Wanni sector. Troops were forced to withdraw from Oddusuddan, Nedunkerny, Olumadu, Ampakamam, Mankulam and Kanakarayankulam.
In December, Tiger guerrillas attacked the north eastern and southern defences of the Elephant Pass defence complex, at Vettilaikerny and Paranthan, respectively, in December, last year. They established a beach-head at Vettilaikerny and seized control of the Paranthan area.
Troops planned an operation to oust them from these areas. It was to be launched on March 26 but was postponed by two days due to logistical requirements. On March 26, Tiger guerrillas began launching further attacks on the Elephant Pass defences. They made a sea borne landing at Chempiyanpattu, on the north eastern coast and also carried out attacks from the south, at Paranthan. In the former attack, they seized more territory and the fighting continued for weeks.
Troops again planned to launch an operation on the night of April 17 but was pre-empted by a guerrilla attack in the morning of the same day. These triggered off events that resulted in the troops withdrawing from Elephant Pass, further northwards to Pallai and later to Eluthumaduwal. The fighting thereafter entered the Jaffna peninsula.
The Sunday Times regrets its inability to publish a sequence of events that led to the Elephant Pass (see box story) and the current situation in the Jaffna peninsula. However, a few comments sans the factual sequence may be deemed by the Censor to be permissible.
Elephant Pass defences were in every sense a strategic fortification. It was the gateway to Jaffna. Control of this narrow neck of land dominated all land communications between the LTTE's Wanni bases and the Jaffna peninsula, the cultural centre of the Eelam ethos.
The defences extending from Vettilaikerny and Iyakachchi in the North to Paranthan in the South was spread well over 70 square kilometres and interspersed with natural obstacles of lagoon and sea fronts forming a tactically complementary fortification. Over two Divisions were deployed in its defence. Theoretically, the Elephant Pass defences were impregnable. The failure of the earlier attack on that area in July-August, 1991, when it was under siege for nearly two months demonstrated that it was a formidable fortification.
In 1991, the LTTE took on Elephant Pass in a conventional style operation relying on achieving local superiority to besiege the isolated position. They did not bargain for "Operation Balavegaya," the assault landing at Vettilaikerny that relieved the besieged Elephant Pass with re-inforcements of men and material to foil the LTTE attack.
"Operation Balavegaya" more importantly opened the Vettilaikerny corridor to Elephant Pass to provide an additional line of communication by sea to back up the hitherto only supply route to that area from Palaly, the land based MSR on the A-9. As a result of that bonus, Elephant Pass was developed into a major strategic base that was regarded as an invincible obstacle to LTTE expansion into the Jaffna peninsula.
The obvious lesson to the LTTE from the 1991 failure was that to overpower and defeat the Elephant Pass defences, the position had to be isolated physically from material and logistic re-inforcement so it could be effectively besieged. Towards that end, the phased plan of the LTTE was to first overrun the satellite defences of Paranthan-Kilinochchi so that the main complex there would come within range of guerrilla artillery and mortars. Having done that, the LTTE commenced on a strategy to encircle Elephant Pass towards denying it lines of supply and communication from other support bases. Their first objective was the Vettilaikerny corridor, that which thwarted their 1991 offensive.
That the LTTE were on a re-equipment programme including the acquisition of high powered weaponry like MBRL was well known and frequently commented on in these columns. It was also the experience of the Army that the LTTE offensive was based on the intensive use of mortars, a fact which too has been repeatedly commented on in this column. These developments were spread over a period of time that gave the defence establishment more than adequate warning to plan counter measures and procure appropriate equipment.
The reliance on mortar fire by the LTTE over the years should at least have spurred the defence establishment to improve the security forces capability of locating LTTE mortar and artillery fire, and developing effective counter bombardment measures including interdiction by air.
During a three day spell when the nation was not under a censorship, The Sunday Times last week revealed details of a questionable deal. Details cannot now be revealed in view of the renewed censorship. However, it can be said that the Army Headquarters have now sent a report on this matter to the Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte. The matter is expected to be placed before President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga shortly.
The debacle at Elephant Pass is now history. But how it came to be is not. The war is continuing as it has for the past 17 years. There have been too many debacles and too many lives lost as a result. Mankulam, Pooneryn, Mandaitivu and Mullaitivu among others may be history. But it is from the lessons learnt from these failures that future successes are fashioned.
Judging from Elephant Pass, these lessons are as historical as those disasters and remain unlearnt. Unfortunately, media censorship has denied the exposure of some of the truth and as a result suppressed public accountability by those responsible.
The debacle at Elephant Pass fits into the classic sayings of Sun Tzu, who is quoted as follows in the Art of War:
"So the rule of military operations is not to count on opponents not coming, but to rely on having ways of dealing with them: not to count on opponents not attacking, but to rely on having what cannot be attacked."
The Sunday Times is unable to publish the full story on the fall of Elephant Pass in view of the re-introduction of the censorship, through an extraordinary Gazette notification dated July 1, 2000.
These regulations prohibit the publication or broadcast of: any material containing any matter which pertains to any operations carried out or proposed to be carried out, by the Armed Forces or the Police (including the Special Task Force), the procurement or proposed procurement of arms or supplies by any such forces, the deployment of troops or personnel, or the deployment or use of equipment including aircraft or naval vessels, by any such forces or any statement pertaining to the official conduct or the performance of the Head or any member of any of the Armed Forces or the Police Force, which affect the morale of the members of such forces: or any material which would or might in the opinion of the Competent Authority be prejudicial to the interests of national security or the preservation of public order or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community or inciting or encouraging persons to mutiny, riot or civil commotion, or to commit the breach of any law for the time being in force.
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