It was past 12.30 pm on Friday when Major General Jagath Dias, General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Army's 57 Division, reached out to a secure telephone to give the Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka the good news. Troops have entered Kilinochchi bringing to a close a three-pronged thrust.
The fact that that the strategic northern town, 328 kilometres from Colombo, was within reach of the troops much sooner than expected, was known to the Army Chief. He had forecast it only last Thursday. By then, the guerrillas, fearing a major assault from the troops were removing their remaining logistics including gun positions not only from areas in and around Kilinochchi but also at Muhamalai. They were retreating into areas in the Mullaitivu district. However, they were leaving behind small groups to delay the arrival of troops.
When the news reached President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he was elated. By then, some plans on how to handle the impending success at Kilinochchi were on hand. His first move was to order the summoning of a special meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) to apprise himself of how the troops' victory came about.
|This week’s picture of troops of the Army’s Task Force 1 at the Paranthan Junction
"Well done Sarath," President Rajapaksa, who is also Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, declared when the meeting began. In those three words, he had had paid tribute to his Army Chief for securing Kilinochchi. The meeting was held at the Presidential Secretariat or the former Parliament building from where the nations' past leaders have held sway. Though details of what transpired are not available, it is learnt, that Lt. Gen. Fonseka briefed members on how troops regained control of Kilinochchi. A tea party followed. Those informal moments saw many congratulate Lt. Gen. Fonseka.
Thereafter, from the third floor, President Rajapaksa and members of the NSC came down to the second floor banquet hall. There was a larger audience waiting there. That included Ministers, Deputy Ministers, senior Government officials and the media. A national event, telecast and broadcast nationwide, began. Within moments the country was engulfed in national euphoria. The crackers lit in Colombo surpassed the fireworks that ushered in 2009.
"Whatever the words or language used to describe it, the re-capture of Kilinochchi," Mr. Rajapaksa said, "is truly an incomparable victory." Troops have "sacrificed their limbs, organs and lives for this noble task." His "final message" to the Tiger guerrillas on Friday was to lay down arms and surrender. Yesterday, he was set to enforce a warning he issued the guerrillas to free civilians trapped in the Mullaitivu District or face a ban. A Gazette notification proscribing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is due anytime.
With the guerrillas now shrunk to only some parts of the Mullaitivu district the ban will seal for good the fate of any future peace talks between the Government and the guerrillas. Thus, it will also make no sense of repeated assertions by several foreign governments that a solution to the ongoing conflict laid in a political solution and not a military one.
Lt. Gen. Fonseka gave an account of the re-capture of Kilinochchi after President Rajapaksa's address. He acknowledged that troops had to make a lot of sacrifices. "A large number of soldiers lost their lives. Some have become disabled whilst others are recovering in hospitals," he said underscoring the human cost of the ongoing military campaign. He noted that his troops focused attention on Paranthan and Kilinochchi within a month of the re-capture of Pooneryn, which fell to troops on November 15 last year. Some one and half months earlier, troops had arrived five kilometres ahead of the Kilinochchi railway station.
Lt. Gen. Fonseka noted that since the fall of Kilinochchi, the remaining guerrilla cadres were concentrated in an area of some 40 square kilometres in the Mullaitivu district. According to him, 1500 guerrillas have already been killed. According to intelligence reports, he said, there were about 1700 to 1900 remaining. "We will be able to see the end of these remaining terrorists within this year. It will not take one year," he declared.
Forward elements had already reached some vantage points at Kilinochchi before troops seized control of the area. The Army's 571 and 572 Brigade troops were the first to formally enter the Kilinochchi town. This is how it worked.
Troops of Task Force 1 had seized control of the Paranthan Junction last Wednesday (December 31 2008). They advanced in a southerly direction to Kilinochchi. This was along the A-9 (Kandy-Jaffna highway). Earlier, with the re-capture of this nodal junction, troops had blocked the road to cut off guerrilla movements past Paranthan towards Elephant Pass and beyond. Army officials in the area say fearing this; the guerrillas had moved some of their logistics at Muhamalai along the seacoast towards Mullaitivu.
Troops of the 57 Division near Kokavil advanced northwards. This was whilst another column of 57 Division troops located in the general area of Adampan moved from west to east. The three columns met each other in the Kilinochchi town completing the re-capture. It was a ghost town with no presence of civilians. Bodies of some seven guerrillas, part of those who stayed behind to resist the troops advance, lay strewn in the area. However, troops were moving cautiously in the area removing improvised explosive devices and booby traps.
Yesterday, troops of Task Force 1 advancing in another column northwards from Paranthan had reached an area just four kilometres ahead of Elephant Pass. Army officials say the fall of this key northern guerrilla stronghold was now a matter of time since only remaining elements were offering resistance.
In the Weli Oya sector, the Army's 59 Division continued their thrust in the direction of Mullaitivu. According to Lt. Gen. Fonseka troops were only five kilometres away from Mullaitivu. Troops here have crossed a ditch-cum-bund. The guerrillas were offering stiff resistance. The newly created Task Force 4 that was inducted to this sector only two weeks ago was just a kilometre away from Odusuddan yesterday. See map on this page.
The loss of Kilinochchi no doubt is a humiliating defeat for the guerrillas. With more and more military supplies smuggled in through the high seas, they had planned to hold Kilinochchi throwing in whatever resources available at their disposal. All the reasons for the hasty retreat are still not clear. However, one thing that has emerged is the fact that the guerrilla leadership feared confronting the troops would result in heavy casualties to some of their remaining hard-core strength. Hence, they want to retain them for the final battles that will now centre around what Lt. Gen. Fonseka calls the 40 square kilometre stretch in Mullaitivu.
The confidence of defending Kilinochchi was so high in his mind, that LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was prompted to remark that the re-capture of Kilinochchi was a daydream of President Rajapaksa. In his address on Friday, the President declared, in truth it was not his dream alone but the constant dream of all Sri Lankans.
The loss of Kilinochchi has ended more than a decade old domination of this northern farming town by the guerrillas. The area was captured by the Army during the third phase of Operation Sath Jaya in September 1996. However, it fell into guerrilla hands in November 1998 when they launched Operation Unceasing Waves II. Thereafter it continued to remain under their control until last Friday.
To the guerrillas, the significance of Kilinochchi lay in the fact that they had converted it as their "political power centre." Their so-called administrative machinery, law courts, tax collection apparatus, the Peace Secretariat and facilities to entertain visitors were all concentrated there. Their military nerve centre in Mullaitivu district houses their police headquarters, armouries, training camps and a number of other installations. Yesterday, the Air Force stepped up bombing raids on these areas.
Lakshman Hulugalle, Director General of the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) admitted to CNN-IBN, the Indian based television network, the air raids were targeting suspected hideouts of the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. With Friday's re-capture of Kilinochchi, the Army's attention is now focused largely on two key fronts. The main one of course is the recapture of Mullaitivu. The other is to regain control of Elephant Pass and proceed beyond Iyakachchi junction towards the one time entry-exit point at Muhamalai. When that happens, they would have secured a land-based supply route along the A-9 highway.
An apparent retaliation for the re-capture of Kilinochchi came barely an hour after President Rajapaksa had delivered his address. A guerrilla suicide bomber walked along the road outside the Trans Asia Hotel on Chittampalam Gardiner Mawatha, crossed the road and tried to enter the former Air Force headquarters complex. The installation houses Air Force personnel. It is located near the new multi-storeyed SLAF Headquarters. He used that route since pedestrians are not allowed to traverse the road just outside the Air Force grounds that adjoins this installation.
He had wanted to enter the premises. Two Air Force policemen and a member of their bomb disposal unit were checking him when he detonated explosives strapped to his chest.
Three Air Force personnel were killed and 30 civilians were wounded, three of them seriously. Police believe the intention of the suicide bomber was to walk into the premises and explode himself in the presence of a crowd of Air Force personnel.
Police say there is a new pattern in these attacks. It was only last Sunday (December 28 2008) that a suicide bomber walked into the billet of the Civil Defence Force (CDF) located within the precincts of St. Anne's Church at Wattala.
Some 140 CDF personnel, protecting the route from Peliyagoda to the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) reside here. A CDF sentry at the entrance to the billet had tried to prevent the suicide bomber from entering. That is when he exploded himself killing five CDF members. Police said if the bomber succeeded in entering, he could have caused casualties to more persons since nearly 60 were present inside.
On December 19, a passenger travelling in a bus plying from Maharagama to Kurunegala averted a disaster by spotting a suspicious parcel. She had alerted two soldiers. They rounded up a guerrilla suspect with a four-kilogramme bomb. More than 100 soldiers from the Army Cantonment at Panagoda, who were on leave, were to travel in this bus.
Yesterday, personal protection groups of Ministers and other VIPs were given enhanced security briefings to be mindful of the newer threats. Sporadic checks and other enhanced security measures have come into effect in Colombo and other principal towns.
As attention now focuses on Mullaitivu and Elephant Pass, measures to prevent diversionary attacks outside the theatres of battle have become a subject of high priority for the defence and security establishment. That makes the coming days and weeks more critical as the guerrillas fight their last ditch battle to hold on to the terrain in Mullaitivu.