As government troops close in on the four to six kilometre stretch of land held by Tiger guerrillas in a narrow coastal strip of the Mullaitivu District the focus is now on the remaining LTTE leadership and rescuing the civilians still trapped there.
Both the Army and the Navy this week announced that land and sea blockades have been set up to pre-empt Tiger guerrillas escaping. The military believes that the elusive LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran still remains in the area.
One of the main challenges facing the army in their final push is the problem of civilians held hostage by the remaining LTTE cadres. The alightest miscalculation would result in a large number of civilian deaths.
The LTTE is believed to be restricted to a stretch of land between the South of Rektavaikal to Vellamullivaikkal.
According to the army, fleeing civilians claim that Prabhakaran and his son Charles Anthony who was recently injured on his shoulder by artillery shrapnel, aresaid to be hiding somewhere between Vellamullivaikkal and Kariyamullivaikkal in the no- fire- zone.
Prabhakaran’s exact location is not yet known and the LTTE chief has been maintaining radio silence ever since Puthukkudiyirippu, a formidable command centre fell into the hands of the government troops leading to a multi frontal assault, compelling him and many other leaders to take cover among civilians in the demarcated no- fire- zone.
|Landmines found during clearing operations by the troops. Pic by Sanath Priyantha
It believed that current LTTE operations are being conducted by the LTTE intelligence wing chief, Pottu Amman.
Troops who intercepted a Tiger radio transmission say they heard Pottu Amman directing the Tigers when the Army overran Puthukkudiyirippu east and parts of the no- fire- zone. Previously, troops heard him sending a heavily coded radio message to Sea Tiger leader, Soosai to deploy reinforcements when their earth bund in Puthumathalan was destroyed by troops.
The military also says that according to reports Pottu Amman, who always maintained a low profile no longer wears his LTTE uniform lest he draw attention on himself.
Civilians who have escaped have reportedly told the military that Pottu Amman has been seen in civilian clothing addressing guerillas and civilians including women, pregnant mothers and children urging them to fight for the LTTE and defend their rapidly dwindling terrain.
The LTTE spy chief has reportedly directed other top LTTE leaders too to desist wearing the LTTE uniform. According to Daya Master and George Master, two key LTTE figures who crossedover, several other middle rung LTTE leaders were also planning to abandon the outfit.
The two who crossed over with thousands of civilians, were brought to Colombo and interrogated by officers of the Army Directorate of Military Intelligence.The two had reportedly disclosed that the Tiger chief was planning to escape to another country by using a semi-submersible underwater craft.
Prototypes of these makeshift submarines were found in the Mullaitivu District during clearing operations by troops.
Last week, speculation was rife about Prabhakaran and his son escaping from the no-fire-zone. The Sunday Times learns that this followed a reported confession made by a Tiger operative who was nabbed in the southern Indian coast of Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu.
The operative was arrested by police officers of the “Q” branch of the Tamil Nadu police. The man, hailing from Trincomalee was later questioned by another intelligence wing.
After several long hours of grilling the Tiger operative is reported to have claimed that the LTTE leader had escaped from the no-fire- zone.
He was previously wanted by the Indian authorities for smuggling by boat weapons, explosives and fuel for the LTTE. His modus operandi was to move with a cluster of Indian fishing boats that crossed into Sri Lankan territorial waters to avoid detection by the navy.
He had reportedly confessed that the LTTE supremo had been hiding in the east of Sri Lanka and had previously made plans to come to Tamil Nadu with his son where he has the support of several Tamil Nadu politicians. He however said Prabhakaran was unable escape because of the naval surveillance by both Sri Lankan and Indian navies.
It is also believed the confession could be a mere ruse to put investigators off track.
Presently it is improbable that anyone could escape from no-fire- zone as the area in which the LTTE is confined to is surrounded by troops.
Previously, India had been concerned over the influx of displaced Sri Lankans arriving at the southern Indian coast because Tiger operatives could have infiltrated with the people.
In the past Tiger operatives had used Tamil Nadu as a weapons and supplies transit base.
This resulted in the Indian defence establishment intensifying naval operations within its coastal waters to prevent any LTTE infiltration.
Last week, pitched battles raged in the no-fire-zone area resulting in troops gaining more ground and more civilians being rescued.
In the backdrop of the capture of the northern flank of the no fire zone in Puthumattalan and Ampalavanpokkanai, infantry battalions attached to the 58 Division started their operations to rescue civilians trapped in the southern flank.
Amidst stiff resistance by the Tigers who were firing mortar and artillery towards the advancing troops of the 10th and the 11th Sri Lanka Light Infantry battalion as well as the 12th Gemunu Watch battalion, troops eventually managed to capture the north of Valayarmadam by last Sunday.
On Sunday alone troops managed to rescue nearly 2500 civilians who were entrapped by the LTTE.
The LTTE that had lost the north of Valayarmadam began firing at troops from the south. More troops of the 58 division were deployed to consolidate their positions in the recently captured area.
The next phase of capturing Valayarmadam south was to break through two massive earth bunds that were constructed from the beach front to the lagoon front right across the no-fire- zone.
Each earth bund was 10 feet high and nearly 700 metres long including an 8 foot deep ditch behind the earth bunds, thus making it hard for troops to cross.
By Monday night, troops managed to overrun the Tiger base south of Valayarmadam where close quarter battles erupted. As some troops began to cross the earth bund others began to evacuate the civilians.
At that very moment an LTTE suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden truck targeting the troops and civilians who were crossing the earth bund. However, one soldier noticing the ineffectiveness of small arms fire in stopping the suicide bomber fired his RPG completely destroying the truck, thus saving many lives.
Despite heavy resistance by the LTTE troops forged ahead to capture Rektavaikal, further south of the no-fire-zone. During the early hours of Wednesday the LTTE deployed six suicide bombers to recapture Rektavaikal. Out of the six suicide bombers four of them were on trailer bikes.
During a subsequent search operation in the Rektavaikal area troops discovered two armour plated trucks which were used to transport senior LTTE leaders.
As the ground offensive continued the Sri Lanka Navy thwarted several LTTE attempts to attack ground troops.
The LTTE deployed several Sea Tiger craft carrying several guerrillas to infiltrate the area controlled by the army’s 59 division operating north of Mullaitivu.
Last Sunday naval boats destroyed three Tiger craft resulting in 12 Sea Tigers killed.
Again on Monday the navy’s, Special Boat Squadron (SBS) that has been placed as the first naval blockade destroyed another Tiger boat off the coast of Mullaitivu.
On Wednesday, the navy’s SBS and Fast Attack Craft (FAC) destroyed six Sea Tiger boats near the coastal area of the no-fire-zone.
Naval troops engaged a combined cluster of Sea Tiger suicide and attack craft on their launching pad in the no-fire-zone while attempting to set off on an attack mission on the advancing ground troopsIn the confrontation a navy arrow boat was damaged while five sailors sustained injuries. Around 25 Sea Tigers were reported killed in the attack.
Once again during the early hours of Friday three Sea Tiger boats were sunk in which 23 rebels were believed to have been killed.
At present an estimated figure of at least 20,000 civilians are still trapped in the southern part of the no- fire-zone. The fate of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his outfit seems grim as troops continue their advance. Whether the elusive Tiger leader will commit suicide, escape or surrender or whether he has already escaped from the area will probably come to light in the forthcoming days.