Situation Report

24th September 2000

How ' Operation Kiniheera' won Chavakachcheri

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imageWithin minutes of the Sri Lanka Air Force Antonov 32 landing at the Palaly Air Base, a vehicle whisked off the two VIPs to the Northern Command Headquarters, a few hundred yards away.

The arrival of the flight was being awaited with anxiety by the senior military officials. The countdown for a major offensive was to begin in minutes. Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Rohan de S Daluwatte and Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, rushed straight to the crowded Operations Room.

There, Gen. Daluwatte, now the senior-most military official responsible for planning and executing counter terrorist operations, gave the go ahead to Major General Anton Wijendra, to launch the Army's latest offensive to re-capture Chavakachcheri. It began at 8.10 a.m. Within four hours, the task was executed. Troops Commander Brigadier Sivali Wanigasekera radioed the Ops Room to say "mission accomplished."

On hand at the Operations Room were Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, who had arrived on an AN 32 an hour earlier with the Acting Director of Operations of the Air Force, Group Captain W.D.R.M.J. Gunathilake. Air Force Commander Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakoddy who was to have been present had to change plans due to the crash of the Mi-17 VIP helicopter with SLMC leader and Ports Minister M.H.M. Ashraff on board. He flew by helicopter to trek the hills where the crash occurred and was later busy personally ascertaining what went wrong.

That was the first time Sri Lankans ever learnt that Chavakachcheri, a strategically important junction which is the gateway to the Jaffna town remained in LTTE hands for four months and had been re-captured. The news of its fall, like some of the other areas, had remained deliberately obscured by the ongoing censorship. But not its re-capture. In marked contrast, it received wide play in the media.

Last Thursday, the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence laid out a programme for a team of both local and foreign journalists to visit Jaffna. They were taken to Chavakachcheri where they saw for themselves that troops had not only re-captured the strategic junction but were in control of the area. Troops were busy consolidating their defences.

At least that put paid to LTTE claims that they were still holding the area and heavy fighting was raging. Whilst doing so, the LTTE had also launched what appeared to be a diversionary propaganda drive. Pictures of the LTTE capture of Elephant Pass, their seizure of three Chinese made 152 mm artillery guns and related photographs had been released in London. Security forces had insisted that only one of these powerful artillery guns had fallen into the hands of the LTTE, that too when the troops were moving it with a tow vehicle during withdrawal from Elephant Pass.

The photographs appeared this week in The Tamil Guardian. Three of these photographs from the London based Tamil newspaper were reproduced in the Tamilnet website, which could be easily accessed and counts a substantial following in Sri Lanka. Visits to this website recorded an all time high after the Government clamped down a censorship. One of the photographs in the Tamilnet shows a Tiger guerrilla hoisting the LTTE flag at what was once the Army's 54 Division headquarters in Elephant Pass. Another shows guerrillas firing a 152 mm artillery gun and the third shows a part of a damaged armoured vehicle.

The MOD's conducted tour this week, no doubt, gave the media a feel of the ground situation and how in the past three weeks troops have been on an offensive role. Helping them understand the situation further were meetings they had with senior military commanders in the north including Maj. Gen. Wijendra. Yet, most of them were unaware of an important fact.

They were not told that the latest operation to re-capture Chavakachcheri was not part of "Operation Rivikirana" (Sun's rays) which was first launched on September 3. That operation where troops planned a two pronged offensive (Situation Report September 10) ended up in a fiasco. Official statistics have now placed the death toll at eight officers and 164 killed in action. Over 1,300 were wounded, a third of them sustaining minor injuries. A three member Military Court of Inquiry led by Army Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Neil Dias, is now probing the events leading to this debacle. Other members of the Court are Brigadier Lal Fernando and Brigadier Mohan Rockwood.

A week after this failed offensive, troops surprised Tiger guerrillas by launching another attack from Columbuthurai, the eastern defences of Army held Jaffna. They captured some three and half kilometres of territory eastwards from the town area southwards to an area near the Ariyalai coast. (Situation Report September 17). The Operational Headquarters of the MOD said the move was aimed at restricting supplies to guerrillas holed up in the eastern flank of the Jaffna town. It also secured the Jaffna town area from mortar fire. Since then troops have thwarted at least one counter attack by Tiger guerrillas.

The latest offensive to re-capture Chavakachcheri was code named "Operation Kiniheera" (or Anvil a block on which a blacksmith works on metal). It began at 8.10 am and ended at 12. 30 p.m with the capture of Chavakachcheri junction, a nodal point from which there is access to five different locations Sarasalai, Jaffna, Elephant Pass, Kilali and Thanankilappu. (See map on this page)

Troops moved from two different flanks to link up and thus secured an area of some four square kilometres encompassing the strategic Chavakachcheri town. The Army's 53 Division comprising six battalions ( 10th Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment, 6th and 7th Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment, 6th Gajaba Regiment, 3rd and 8th Sri Lanka Light Infantry) advanced in a southerly direction from near Sarasalai whilst those from the 52 Division comprising (4th Vijayaba Infantry and 11th Volunteer Gajaba Regiment) moved from near Meesalai in a westerly direction. They linked up at a location south west of the Chavakachcheri junction (further east of Navatkuli). In a further four hours, troops had consolidated their positions. They withstood a Tiger guerrilla counter attack inflicting casualties on the enemy and seizing their weapons.

Military sources admit that hardcore Tiger cadres were conspicuous by their absence during confrontations that led to the re-capture of Chavakachcheri. Standing in were mostly Eelappadai Forces, a group of civilians trained in combat to play the role of a "border force," and newly recruited women cadres. Intelligence sources said most of the hard core elements in the peninsula and neighbouring areas had been going through re-training. Hence, the need to be alive to counter attacks, they said, is a strong possibility. More so with adjoining Thanankilappu and Ariyalai areas being dominated by Tiger cadres.

Intelligence sources also warned of possible attacks at Weli Oya, Mannar and Vavuniya sectors as the LTTE made preparations to hit security forces targets and also disrupt the upcoming October 10 elections. In trying to achieve the latter, Police warnings of possible suicide bombs in the City came right last week. This was when a suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to his chest when a Police constable moved to check him outside the Colombo Eye Hospital on September 15.

Police investigations into the incident are still under way but the identity of the assassin or his target are still not known. There has only been speculation that the suicide bomber planned to attack Health Minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva, but the latter said he had not arranged to visit the hospital. He had only driven past the area after an engagement at the BMICH. Police are also not sure whether the suicide bomber wearing the explosive laden vest was waiting for an accomplice to take him to another location to attack a target.

Similarly, identities of suicide bombers on two immediately previous occasions are also not known. One was the January 5 incident where a female suicide bomber exploded herself outside the Prime Minister's Office at Flower Road. The other was the June 7 incident at Ratmalana, which killed Industrial Development Minister, C.V. Gooneratne.

It is on the basis of intelligence reports of LTTE suicide bombers infiltrating that City Police banned political rallies in the area. With one suicide bomber's pre-mature explosion confirming their presence in the City, security has been further enhanced with more troops being positioned in the City and suburban streets. More mobile patrols are to be introduced in the next few days to supplement security for the Parliamentary general elections.

Despite the ongoing censorship, the threats posed by Tiger guerrillas and the 17 year long separatist war, have become a common subject at election rallies of every political party, particularly those of the People's Alliance and the United National Party. Addressing a People's Alliance election rally at Nildandahinna (in the Nuwara Eliya District), Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, leading the ruling party's campaign, declared that Elephant Pass would be re-captured before October 10, according to a report in The Island of September 22.

He declared "The Army is demolishing the LTTE strongholds and re-capturing areas which the terrorist group captured in April. They have re-captured several crucial areas inflicting heavy losses to the enemy. The aim of the armed forces is to re-capture all the areas lost in the April debacle. I am confident the forces would re-capture Elephant Pass, by the day we are going to polls on October 10," the report said.

The report added: "Referring to the UNP's call for a ceasefire, the Premier said we will not declare a ceasefire at any cost. We will fight at any cost. We will fight on and destroy the enemy and thereafter, with the peace loving sections of the Tamil community in the North, restore peace. Until then the war would go on with added vigour."

Even if senior Army officials insisted that there was no connection between the current election campaign and the conduct of military operations during the conducted media tour this week, the successes were certainly good news for PA campaigners. None other than Premier Wickramanayake has underscored this fact when he spoke of troops recapturing new areas and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy.

But there were more important aspects to his pronouncements. The ongoing over reaching censorship continues to remain in force, for the first time during a Parliamentary election campaign. Among other matters, it prohibits material prejudicial to the interests of national security or the preservation of public order.

Although it certainly would not have been in Premier Wickremanayake's mind to either endanger national security or disrupt public order, his public assertion that the troops will re-capture Elephant Pass before October 10, is certainly an early warning to the LTTE. They now know that the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, who is spearheading the ruling party's election campaign, has officially declared the intention of the troops to re-capture Elephant Pass.

One may argue, quite understandably, that it is a logical conclusion any Sri Lankan could make. After all, the troops are known to be fighting to oust the Tiger guerrillas from the areas they seized in April, this year.

But in this instance, the fact that it would be carried out before October 10, if in fact that is the case, is undoubtedly an early warning to the enemy. They now know they would have to face an onslaught on their positions at Elephant Pass in the next 15 days. Would they not now prepare counter strategy or pre-emptive strikes ? Would that also increase the pressure on troops to step up their offensive thus endangering the lives of soldiers?

One of the reasons trotted out by apologists for the far flung censorship is the fact that the media warned the enemy of impending military offensives. Except for situations where the circumstances make it obvious, no media has revealed military plans of an offensive leave alone set time frames for such an effort. Whatever may be said or not said on political platforms, the fact is that the military has been refreshed and are on the threshold of intensifying operations against the LTTE in the peninsula. The fallout of any military success will be claimed by the ruling parties.

At the same time they risk the embarrassment, if not any political reversals, should the military offensives be unsuccessful. This is the election gamble.

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