Puliyankulam : fierce battle, heavy losses
Once an obscure tiny village in the heart land of Wanni, Puliyankulam, has now earned the dubious reputation as Sri Lanka's killing fields.
Fierce battles by the security forces to wrest control of this strategic junction, which have raged for nearly two months, have turned out to be increasingly costly, both in terms of human and material losses. And that too out of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (or Victory Assured) which will be exactly five months old tomorrow, Monday, October 13.
This is despite confident assertions last month by some PA leaders involved with the military campaign that the ongoing operation would end in two weeks. At top level private discussions they even spoke of LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, having fled the country.
The week ending today has not only seen some of the bloodiest battles but also heaviest losses in offensive operations in the country's history. To their demonstrated credit, security forces have fought the brunt of the Tiger guerrilla attacks fearlessly. Mortars continued to rain on them.
The equipment that would have helped them identify and neutralise enemy mortar positions, the Mortar Locating Devices, were obtained in 1995 as "crisis purchase" - the open licence given by the PA Government to hurriedly procure all needed equipment without normal tender and other procedures. That was after 100 days of peace talks with the LTTE failed and Government leaders felt they should make available anything and everything the security forces needed to defeat the guerrillas.
Twenty four units of Mortar Locating Devices purchased at a cost of US dollars 15 million (or Rs 870 million), like hundreds of other purchase of non serviceable items, are lying idle. The only benefit that has accrued from such purchases is to make some arms dealers and their cohorts in uniform millionaires. Reports of both categories acquiring land, houses, luxury cars or sending their children for an expensive university education abroad are rampant.
This is whilst mortars have continued to take a heavy toll of soldiers lives. The events this week showed how frighteningly lethal they have become. Logistical problems delayed the onward movement of the bodies of dead soldiers to their next of kin. Worse enough, those who suffered injuries had to be moved by vehicles to the ADS - Advanced Dressing Stations. After initial treatment there, they had to endure the abominable pain from injuries (more often overnight) until they are evacuated to hospitals in Anuradhapura or Colombo. Transferring the injured from the battlefield to the ADS has not been an easy task with the onset of the monsoon. They are drenched in the pelting downpour.
And two long years after the crisis purchases have flooded the battlefields with both expensive, sophisticated military hardware as well as with obsolete, unserviceable items, there are no signs that the cost of the protracted guerrilla war has receded. To the contrary, it is showing an upward trend giving a message to every Sri Lankan. To the tax payer, its a message that they would have to continue to pay to sustain the war effort. To all others, indirect taxes on goods including consumer items is a daily reminder.
None other than Justice, Constitutional Affairs, Ethnic Affairs and National Integration Minister, Dr. G.L. Peiris, has in his role as Deputy Minister of Finance, declared that the highest allocation in the budget for next year, Rs 45 billion, has been made to the Defence Ministry. The current year's allocation is Rs 44 billion.
Like the current year's allocation which exceeded the allocated amount (due to the mounting cost of procurements), there is no doubt, there will be a repetition this year too. Whilst the allocations have been made on the basis of recurring costs and new procurements, colossal unexpected losses of military hardware warrant additional expenditure. Events in the battlefields of Wanni this week underscore this reality.
In these columns last week, I reported the confrontation on October 2 between Special Forces troops and Tiger guerrillas at the village of Karuppukutti, north east of Puliyankulam, in which 48 soldiers were killed, 20 missing in action and 308 wounded. The area came under attack once again.
Whilst the security forces thrust was under way at Karuppukutti, another column of troops had advanced from Nainamadu towards Karuppadimurippu, near Oddusuddan on the main Mullaitivu - Mankulam Road.
The earlier thrust was aimed at pinning down Tiger guerrillas whilst the subsequent advance was to cover a wider area and encompass Puliyankulam. Among other things, if it succeeded, it would have cut off LTTE supply routes from Mullaitivu to Tiger cadres in and around Puliyankulam. But all hell broke loose on Sunday, October 5.
Around 10 a.m. on that day, Tiger guerrillas launched a string of attacks that were to wreak havoc and isolate troops in the battlefront.
Under attack was the Commando Brigade and the 552 Brigade (shifted months ago from the operational control of the 55 Division to the 53 Division) defence lines, north and south of Karuppadimurippu and the neighbouring Sinna Adampan. Wave after wave of Tiger guerrillas broke through the northern line of defences.
They fired heavy barrages of 81 mm mortars. In addition they also fired 60 mm mortars and 120 mm artillery intermittently. The bitter gun battle continued till dawn Monday. Security forces seized from the enemy nine T 56 rifles and a radio set.
Concurrently groups of guerrillas also mounted attacks on troops in other areas. Men of the 16th Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment and the 11th Battalion of the Gemunu Watch at Karuppukutti and adjoining Vingnanakulam, located some three kilometres north east of the village of Kanakarayankulam. Here again there was high intensity mortar fire accompanied by periodic bursts of artillery.
The attacking Tiger guerrillas targeted the headquarters of the Armour Brigade and the 120 mm artillery positions which lay further south. They breached the defences and stormed in.
The battle continued throughout Tuesday. The LTTE launched renewed attacks on the 552 brigade at Karuppukutti and the adjoining 533 Commando Brigade. The attack occurred from the western sector when Air Mobile troops were clearing the southern parts of Karuppukutti. At the same time, troops of the First Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment were advancing from Karuppukutti north in a southerly direction. A fierce gun battle ensued throughout the day with heavy mortar barrages. Troops immediately shifted the armoured brigade and withdrew artillery guns.
A Czechoslovak built Main Battle Tank which was taking on enemy positions ahead of the armoured brigade was hit by artillery fire. The tank was destroyed and five crew members were killed.
Elsewhere, in Sinna Adampan, troops of the Third Battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry and the Fourth Battalion of the Sinha Regiment came under guerrilla attack. Later in the day, the two battalions disengaged and went to night harbour. Later that night, a claymore mine exploded killing the driver of a bus and two soldiers. The bus had been deployed to evacuate casualties.
As three days of fighting receded, the breaching of the defences had caused a wide gap thus isolating troops in the general area of Karupaddimurippu. Even yesterday, columns of troops were advancing for a link up. A senior official at Army Headquarters said yesterday "within the next 48 hours, the link up will be completed." He said there was no danger of the troops being attacked since there was a large concentration and added that supplies to them were being maintained by air.
The LTTE seized a massive haul of vehicles and military hardware. They included a Unicorn armoured vehicle with a 12.7 mm machine gun mounted, a Land Rover, three tractors, four brand new (D4) Bull Dozers, a tracked vehicle, a pick up truck and a bus used for casualty evacuation.
Tiger guerrillas also seized a wide array of military hardware during attacks on Vingnanakulam, Karuppukutti and Karuppadimuruppu. Among them 3284 rounds of 81 mm mortar bombs, 2851 rounds of 60 mm mortar shells, 955 RPG shells, 966 RPG propellers, 35,715 rounds of NATO small arms ammunition, 1120 rounds of 50 calibre ammunition, 5273 rounds of PK link ammunition, 7330 of 50 calibre link ammunition, 409,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, seven 50 mm guns, seven night vision glasses, 1781 mm mortar launchers, 28 T56 rifles and Pakistan made PK Mortar Launchers with 13,100 mortar bombs.
Undoubtedly casualties to LTTE cadres were high during the confrontation. One senior officer in the battle area said over 120 guerrillas were killed. He said radio intercepts spoke of over 300 casualties. He said nearly 80 dead bodies of Tiger cadres lay strewn in the rain soaked battle areas.
Security forces killed in action during confrontations from Sunday to Friday is said to be just over 110 with more than 520 injured. This pushes the total number of soldiers killed in the 152 day long operation to over 810 and the wounded to over 4,500. More than 1100 of those injured have been left out of battle, according to military officials.
Last Tuesday the bodies of 20 unidentified soldiers were cremated at night with full military honours within the Joint Operations Command Headquarters premises in Vavuniya. These were among 27 bodies handed over to the Army by the ICRC.
But there are fears that a further unknown number may be dead although the exact count has not been established. This is from an estimated 100 to 150 soldiers declared Missing In Action following the string of LTTE attacks. The final tally will be known only after troops link up with those at Karuppadimurippu.
The attacks at Puliyankulam by the LTTE, quite clearly, demonstrates that they are by no means a weakened force as often claimed by the politico-military establishment. Neither does the ferocity and size of the attack go in any way to support the boasted premise that the war is 85 per cent over and only a mere 15 per cent needs to be completed.
The LTTE can be expected to resist the rest of the security forces advance to Kilinochchi with equal ferocity which makes it more than unlikely the Government will be able to establish its aim to open the Main Supply Route to Kilinochchi before the end of this year. The LTTE was withdrawing cadres from the east to augment its strength in Wanni. Considering the north east monsoon and the terrain conditions that would follow, posing obstacles to the military, it is not unlikely that plans to complete the operation will extend well into the new year.
There has been much said about the capture of the nodal towns of Puliyankulam and Mankulam would isolate the LTTE into the eastern half of the jungle and dislocate their logistics from the western Wanni. The division of the Wanni, if the Main Supply Route strategy is successful, will no doubt bifurcate the Wanni. However, the question is whether that would place the LTTE in as greater disadvantageous situation as is believed.
The LTTE's tactical interest in the western Wanni has not been a significant factor in the 16 years of the separatist war. That inspite of the fact that the western sea board of the northern province is a mere 22 miles from Tamil Nadu as opposed to the longer route the LTTE have preferred from the Valvettiturai- Mullaitivu - east coast littoral. Furthermore that the western Wanni opens access to Wilpattu and Puttalam, which is within the perceived Eelam homeland has not been a significant factor either in the LTTE tactical operations seen so far in the war.
The lack of LTTE resistance to "Operation Edibala" in February, this year, perhaps indicates that the LTTE could do without the western Wanni at least for the moment. Any great interest the LTTE has shown in the western Wanni has been in the area north of Akkarayankulam during the period they controlled the Jaffna lagoon access to the peninsula through Nagathevanthurai.
Judging from this, it would seem that the greater strategic focus of the LTTE is in maintaining the corridor between the north and eastern provinces through the strategic and sensitive border areas of Weli Oya and Seruwawila.
Apart from the greater geo strategic importance of the eastern half of the Wanni as compared to the west, the demographic factors could also have contributed to the LTTE thinking. The Jaffna centric factor is more prevalent amongst the population of the eastern part of the Wanni than in the Muslim - Tamil dominated western sector astride Mannar.
Therefore all in all until the northern-eastern province axis is effectively destructed, Prabhakaran will continue to have operational space. In this regard, the strength required by security forces to maintain security over the enormous area of real estate, of perhaps an established Main Supply Route as well as in the peninsula, will amongst other security factors, require a large force factor.
This is going to be both expensive to the Government in both human and economic resources. To the LTTE, what is important is not the loss of territory but rather the lack of popular support.
So long as the support of the population is there, it does not matter to the LTTE that they do not physically control terrain. On the other hand, to the Government, the control of territory is meaningless unless it secures along with it the support of the population. This is the crucial question.
Not the square area of land re-occupied or the mathematical statistics of how much of the war remains to be completed.
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