Military planners who named it Operation Jaya Sikurui, Sri Lankas second biggest military offensive, were the most embarrassed last week.
It meant VICTORY ASSURED. Forty seven days and over 400 deaths later, with only a third of the 64 kilometre Vavuniya-Kilinochchi highway in their hands, victory is not out of reach. But how soon it would be assured remains the biggest question, for both the countrys political and defence establishment.
Just two weeks after the first counter attack on the Thandikulam-Nochchimodai defences on June 11 (SITUATION REPORT June 15), Tiger guerrillas launched another fierce attack last Tuesday (June 24). This time, it was on the eastern defences of the 55 Division, which had advanced to within a kilometre reach from Puliyankulam. The strike, in the village of Pannikanravi (north of Omanthai), isolated the advancing column of troops from the 551 Brigade for several hours.
Whilst launching this counter attack on the main axis, Tiger guerrillas also made a simultaneous strike on the supporting flank at Periyamadu, on troops of the 53 Division. It appeared to be a move to pin them down and thus prevent re-inforcements rushing to the main axis
Contrary to news reports in the past weeks, the 55 and the 53 Divisions are yet to reach Puliyankulam and link up. Interesting enough, the Tiger guerrillas travelled through the gap between the two advancing columns to carry out the second counter attack.
LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, named it Operation Do or Die - Two. Military officials said a guerrilla force of some 400 was involved in the counter attack whilst a lesser number, estimated to be around 250, took part in the strike at Periyamadu.
At Pannikanravi, the defences were manned by troops of the Vijayaba Infantry Battalion. It was past 11 p.m Tuesday when Rocket Propelled Grenades and small arms fire began to rain on the defences of the eastern flank. Company commander, Captain L. Silva, who mustered a few men and moved forward to face the onslaught was cut down by fire.
Attackers who infiltrated the defences, like during the previous counter strike, had been pre-assigned specific tasks. One group headed for the mortar battery, another towards the armoury and yet others towards a fleet of vehicles. Heavy fighting broke out as more guerrillas broke in.
Sensing that the guerrillas eyed the mortar battery, men there began dismantling the 120 mm mortar launchers. When they began hiding the mortar tubes, the Tiger cadres had arrived in the area. They seized one tube and five mortar launching plates but the rest had by then been hidden.
In effect they have captured one complete 120 mm mortar launcher unit and four launching plates. They also seized a quantity of mortar shells, arms and ammunition.
Military officials said they exploded 500 rounds of mortar shells to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy. They denied an LTTE claim that four 80 mm mortar launchers had also been captured but conceded that a Double Cab and two trucks were seized.
The bitter fighting continued till well past 3 a.m. Wednesday after which the Tiger cadres, who broke in from the east, made their exit through the west. This was in marked contrast to the attack on the Thandikulam-Nochchimodai defences where they broke their way through the western flank and exited through the east.
As dawn broke on Wednesday, the advancing column on the main axis was isolated. The LTTE fired artillery repeatedly to prevent troops from linking up. There was also occasional sniper fire. It was well past Wednesday afternoon when the link up occurred and the havoc caused by the second counter attack began to unravel. Throughout Thursday too the LTTE continued to fire artillery and mortars at troop positions on the outskirts of Puliyankulam.
The whereabouts of the Commanding Officer of the tenth battalion of the Vijayaba Infantry Regiment, Lt. Col. Nizam Dane, was not known for hours after fighting broke out. It turned out that he had taken cover and fought but had been hit by guerrilla fire. He was the senior- most officer to die in the ongoing operation.
Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan De S. Daluwatte, flew to Anuradhapura on Thursday for an emergency meeting with Overall Operations Commander (OOC), Major General Asoka Jayawardena, to determine the future course of Operation Jayasikurui. They had a lengthy closed door discussion at the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) on the progress of the operation so far and decided on modifications. For obvious reasons what they are cannot be detailed out.
These discussions came not only in the aftermath of a second counter attack but also in the backdrop of a serious controversy over claims that there were intelligence warnings of the first one. As reported in these columns last week, the Armys Directorate of Military Intelligence told Lt. Gen. Daluwatte, that they had produced a captured LTTE guerrilla before a senior military official involved in Operation Jaya Sikurui. The youth who possessed a 4 feet X 4 feet map of the Thandikulam-Nochchimodai sectors had revealed an attack would occur within 48 hours.
The official concerned had taken no serious note of the warning except to remark that any attempts at infiltration would be thwarted.
The question now arises whether the Directorate of Military Intelligence was aware of a second attack. Lt. Gen. Daluwatte, I understand, has raised the issue of a reported second DMI warning.
Quite apart from all this speculation and irrespective of the electronic and human intelligence which the Army has recourse to, the media (independent) has been speculating on the likelihood of LTTE counter attacks. Even without these, a person with a most basic knowledge of irregular warfare should have expected the LTTE to counter attack on the tail or the extended lines of communication.
Sri Lankans should be historically aware of this factor for it is our proud heritage that the foreigners that invaded the Kandyan kingdom were counter attacked by the Sinhalese armies either on their logistics tail or on the march back from Kandy.
As the dust cleared from the second counter attack, the details became clear. Concerned by conflicting casualty figures in different print and electronic media, the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence insisted on Friday said that four officers and 60 soldiers were killed during the attack.
By last evening, statistics available at Army Headquarters revealed that Seventy five soldiers (including six officers) were killed. Five officers and 196 soldiers were injured. Of the latter category, 61 have been classed as P1, or those whose injuries are of a serious nature.
The LTTE claimed in a press release issued from its International Secretariat in London that 85 LTTE fighters lost their lives. Intelligence sources, however, insisted that the number was much higher. They estimated it to be over 150.
Local and foreign journalists are debarred from visiting battle areas and communications with these areas remain cut off. Hence independent verification of claims of casualty figures have become difficult.
After Operation Riviresa where three divisions were deployed making it post - independent Sri Lankas largest military offensive, Operation Jaya Sikurui is the second largest and involves two divisions.
During the first three phases of Operation Riviresa from October to December, 1995, - a period of three months - 14 officers and 436 soldiers were killed. A further 153 officers and 3178 soldiers were wounded, a sizeable number of them suffering from minor injuries.
As repeatedly stated in these columns in the past four weeks, casualties in the ongoing Operation Jaya Sikurui has been unusually high.
The Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, which is now concerned about conflicting statistics, is yet to give the total casualty figures for the past 47 days - from the day the operation began on May 13.
Statistics available show that during Operation Jaya Sikurui at least 152 soldiers and two officers were killed until June 11, the day of the first counter attack. A further 650 were wounded.
During the first counter counter attack, 180 were killed and 27 were reported missing in action. A further 320 were wounded. Last Wednesdays counter attack, the second, led to six officers and 69 soldiers being killed and 196 injured.
Casualty figures available so far (since the launch of Operation Jaya Sikurui on May 13), therefore are 409 soldiers and officers killed, 27 missining in action and 1166 (soldiers and officers) wounded.
Authoritative Army sources say the official figures were higher with a much larger injured toll. During the same period (from May 13), 122 soldiers and Policemen (73 soldiers, 30 Policemen and 19 STF commandos) were killed in incidents not connected with the ongoing operation. Hence the death toll in the separatist war for the past 47 days total a staggering 531 deaths - an average of over 11 deaths per day. Besides this, loss or damage to military hardware run into billions of rupees.
Deaths or injuries to over 1500 soldiers during Operation Jaya Sikurui which amounts to the loss of over two full strength battalion equivalents, or in other words the loss of total teeth of a brigade.
This is a heavy toll on the ongoing operation which only consist of two under strength divisions even though some of the casualties are from the support units rear of the advance and divisions who were tasked on consolidating the lines of communication to base areas.
If one were to look at the total picture in terms of casualties alone, the LTTE has caused considerable damage in terms of manpower and morale. Equipment losses added, the total casualties must surely exceed the armed forces estimate of casualties for this operation.
This possibly is the reason which compels the Army to re-assess the objectives of Operation Jaya Sikurui. Quite obviously it is Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakarans strategy to have the Army over extend itself thus opening up weaknesses which the LTTE could exploit, as they have indeed in the last two counter attacks.
The LTTE strategies appear to be on the classical lines of guerrilla warfare. They have deliberately avoided confronting the heavy fist of the security forces advance but attacking the muscle and sinew of the forces supporting the spearhead. They have gone for the close support artillery positions not only with the intention of capturing weaponry but also with the parallel aim of creating maximum human casualties.
Prabhakaran has no option but to continue with this strategy for he lacks the resources and never hopes to have the resources to transform his force into a conventional style Army.
This is in the fashion of classical guerrilla doctrinaire like the manner of the Chinese and Vietnamese insurgencies escalated to confront their conventional enemies. Prabhakaran can never achieve this.
The options of Prbhakaran must aim to avoid being marginalised militarily and politically. Isolation is the worst enemy of the guerrilla.
The loss of control of the Jaffna peninsula has distanced him from a large section of his polity and thus from resources for his military cadre.
He has not regained an adequate foothold in the eastern province to control the population. The Wanni remains a sparsely populated area with a limited population base.
Thus Prabhakaran to an extent has been restricted politically and in respect of resources for his military cadres. However, he has retained his military base by which reason he has been able to compensate whatever he has lost out in population control.
Thus he cannot afford to lose his military position without an alternate political agenda which he has not. So long as Prabhakaran continues as the military strongman to represent the Tamil cause, he dominates the political and military arena denying competition to any other Tamil or mainstream political leadership.
Thus any victory can only result by the defeat of the LTTE militarily. Therefore security forces strategies must necessarily be tailored to the defeat of the LTTE rather than a strategy purely based on political orientation, considerations and machinations.
In an insurgency, there is a thin divide between political and military exigencies. In the final end, it is the political factor that predominates. But in the run up to it, whether it is the military factor or the political consideration which needs emphasis depends on the peculiarity of each situation and circumstance.
Depending on that factor, the political aspect and military aspect fluctuate in priorities. The time now is for emphasis on the military factor to defeat the LTTE in combat.
Military strategies must be geared to this rather than to meet political exigencies which unfortunately in the history of our country has tended to be on narrow, parochial lines. The time now is not for decorated personal political glory but to achieve the national objective.
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