17th October 1999
'Watershed' amid rain of mortars
Curious City residents resumed what has become a routine chore on such occasions – making phone calls to various quarters, friends, Police, Army, the media among them – to ascertain which incident had caused the casualties.
News was out in Colombo's grapevine that the Army had launched another operation in the Wanni. Details remained sketchy and most senior officials connected with the operation remained tight lipped.
At 11 am Thursday, two Divisions of the Sri Lanka Army, 55 and 56, launched "Operation Watershed." They advanced north eastwards from the general area of Ampakamam, where the security forces defences jut in like an elongated box. The aim of the operation is to attack LTTE positions and seize more land area. Security Forces Commander, Wanni, Major General Wasantha Perera, is in overall charge of the operation.
In executing the latest operation, the Army wanted to spring a big surprise on the LTTE. This is in the belief that Tiger guerrillas would not have expected any security forces advance in view of the onset of the north east monsoon. Heavy rains have continued in the area in the past two weeks.
As the two Divisions advanced on Thursday, they came under heavy artillery and mortar fire. Tiger guerrillas kept on firing 122 mm artillery, 60 mm, 81 mm and 120 mm mortars, once more clear proof that they have replenished their stocks substantially. Most of the fire came from the direction of Muthuaiyankaddu.
The fighting on Thursday turned out to be bitter. At least 45 bodies of Tiger guerrillas, mostly women cadres, lay strewn in the area. On this day, nine soldiers were killed. Three officers and 141 men from the 55 Division and two officers and 73 men from 56 Division were wounded. ICRC spokesman Harsha Gunawardena said bodies of 32 Tiger cadres were handed over to the LTTE in Mankulam yesterday evening.
By last morning, after two days of fighting, one officer and 35 soldiers have been killed in action, according to authoritative Army sources. A further nine officers and 355 men have been wounded, a majority of them minor cases. The large number of those wounded have been admitted to hospitals in Anuradhapura whilst those needing greater medical care have been air lifted to Colombo.
Like in the case of the aborted "Operation Rana Gosa 5", the large number of casualties is due to the very heavy use of artillery and mortar fire by the LTTE.
As a result of the soggy terrain caused by incessant rains, the mobility of the troops were restricted and thus made more vulnerable to the artillery and mortar fire.
Besides the confirmed account of at least 45 LTTE deaths, Army officials say Tiger guerrilla casualties are much higher. "Besides those dead, there are a large number who are injured," an Army Officer who spoke on grounds of anonymity said on the telephone from the battle area. However, exact figures were not available and independent verification is not possible. The media remains banned from operational areas and are permitted only on conducted tours.
There was no official word from the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, on the launch of "Operation Watershed." Instead a press release Thursday evening gave an entirely different account. This is what it said:
"On 14 October 1999 around 11 am in general area East of Ampakamam, terrorists launched an attack on to the forward defence line with machine guns and mortars. Troops retaliated effectively with artillery causing heavy casualties among the terrorists.
"Ground troops confirm over 30 terrorists were killed and a large number of terrorists were injured. So far troops have recovered 23 terrorist dead bodies along with 15 T-56 weapons, 01 multi purpose machine gun and 02 anti tank mines. 15 Security Force personnel were killed and 61 were injured due to the confrontation. Troops are in the process of pursuit and consolidation."
For reasons better known to them, the Op Hq of the Ministry of Defence did not want to admit the launch of "Operation Watershed" but claimed the LTTE "launched an attack on to the forward defence line". The cover up did not last long. The real story was out barely 12 hours later.
The Observer of October 15 broke the news in its lead story headlined OPERATION 'WATERSHED' LAUNCHED IN MANKULAM. The report by Ramani Kangaarachchi, a one time number two in the Army's Women's Corps and now journalist said that despite heavy rains Security Forces successfully completed phase on of Operation Watershed on Thursday . This was launched to destroy a LTTE hideout in Ampakamam and liberate the area, it added.
Hours after the Observer hit the streets, Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence issued another press release. This is what it said:
"Further to the press release on 14 October 1999 at 11.30 am
"The confrontation between the Security Forces and the terrorists which began on 14 October 1999 around 11 am in general area east of Ampakamam lasted till morning on 15 October 1999. Infantry troops were well supported by the Artillery and Mi-24 Ground Attack Helicopter Gunships of the Sri Lanka Air Force, inflicting heavy casualties among the terrorists.
"Troops confirm well over 100 terrorists were killed and a large number of terrorists were injured during the confrontation. So far troops have recovered 55 dead bodies of terrorists and the Security Forces have made arrangements to hand over these dead bodies to LTTE through the ICRC. The total number of Security Force personnel killed is 19 and the number injured is 57.
"Troops are in the process of pursuit and consolidation."
In a bid to engage Tiger guerrillas from another flank, troops from the Army's 54 Division on Friday launched "Operation Rela Pahara 2." They broke out of their defences in Paranthan from three directions – east, west and south to locate enemy positions. By Friday afternoon, troops moving on the eastern part of Paranthan attacked an LTTE bunker killing five.
There was no other confrontation till yesterday morning when a gun battle broke out at close quarters. One soldier was killed and another was seriously wounded. Army officials say at least four guerrillas were killed in the incident. Phase two of "Operation Rela Pahara" was under the overall command of Major General Sarath Munasinghe, General Officer Commanding the Army's 54 Division.
Heavy rains from last morning impeded the advance of troops on this operation. However, from the time of its launch, both troops and Tiger guerrillas were locked in artillery and mortar barrages which continued Friday through yesterday.
Army officials said yesterday that "Operation Watershed" has ended but the troops were still exploiting their gains. They said that a larger area, approximately over 12 square kilometres, have now come within their control.
Both "Operation Rana Gosa 5" and now "Operation watershed" appears to be isolated operations. It is not clear as to what the strategic goals these two operations were to achieve.
If the LTTE offered stiff resistance to troops engaged in "Operation Watershed" in the Wanni, they continued with their attempts to destabilise the east. Fears of attacks on a frontier village near Maha Oya forced nearly 800 villagers to converge at a temple last Sunday.
They were later persuaded by the Police to return. Police presence has since been established in the villages in question.
With "Operation Watershed" now complete, water logged Wanni has become difficult terrain for the troops. Even if they play a holding role in the Wanni in the coming weeks, LTTE activity in the east and in areas outside the operational theatre will continue to keep troops and Police on alert. That appears to be the scenario with just two more months to go for the new millennium.
British ballistic experts have identified the Anti Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) fired at Paranthan defences last month by Tiger guerrillas as an AT4 Fagot known by the NATO name Spigot.
This ATGM (designation 9mm 111) has been established from parts of the suspected missile sent by the Army for tests in Britain.
British authorities are learnt to have sent a preliminary report to Army Headquarters confirming the exact identity of the ATGM. A further report giving more details including country of manufacture and other specifications is expected shortly.
The British finding lays to rest speculation over the identity of the ATGM. Western diplomatic sources were quoted in these columns last week as claiming the missile to be a Malyutka (NATO name Sagger) in view of its man portability, cheaper price and availability. Expert findings have now dispelled any doubt. The confirmation of the identity now shows that the LTTE had gone for a more expensive and sophisticated first generation version. The Fagot is manufactured in Bulgaria, Iran, Romania and the Russian Federation.
As reported in these columns on October 3, this year, three different makes of ATGMs came under suspicion – Malyutka (Sagger), Fagot (Spigot) and Konkurs (Spandrel).
The LTTE fired the ATGM on September 24 inside the Parathan defences destroying a Chinese built Armoured Personnel Carrier.
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