Situation Report

19th December 1999

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Elephant Pass troops stand firm

The five week long polls campaign for Tuesday's Presidential elections has easily distracted the attention of a benumbed nation recovering from the shocks of last month's military reversals in the Wanni.

If a virtual news blackout is turning them away from the military battles, a closely fought campaign by the two main Presidential contenders has brought political battles into sharp focus. After a 48 hour cooling off period which came into effect from midnight Saturday, 11.8 million voters will go to the Imagepolls to elect Sri Lanka's fifth executive President.

In the wake of continued LTTE attacks in the north and fears of attacks in the east and the City, security precautions have become the over-riding factor in all the preparations for polls day.

In between her campaigning schedules, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, has taken time off to preside at a string of National Security Council meetings.

They were primarily focused on the developing security situation in the north. Measures to prevent any violence during polls day and thereafter also received equal consideration.

Police who are solely in charge of ensuring the conduct of the polls have been instructed not to allow any person carrying any weapons into polling stations. Armed guards accompanying candidates will also be debarred from entering polling booths. The only exception will be the armed Policemen manning the Polling Stations.

Police have declared a polling station to be the entire premises and not merely the building in which the poll is conducted. Hence, Police are under orders that access to such premises should be permitted to only electors. None will be allowed to carry parcels or bags into the precincts of the Polling Station.

Police will have recourse to security forces assistance during any emergency. Army will continue with their counter terrorism tasks. Manning strategic points and conducting sporadic checks on vehicles will be among the measures that will be enhanced.

Beginning tomorrow morning, armed Police constables will accompany Senior Presiding officers (SPOs) to over 9500 polling booths countrywide. This is after Police conduct checks on the premises. They will remain there until the end of the polls.

A Police Elections Secretariat headed by A.A. Samarasinghe, DIG (Elections) and supported by a Director (M.B. Raban-SSP) and Additional Director (Upali Hettige SSP) have sent out instructions to Police countrywide on detailed security measures. They are in the form of a 35 page booklet.

In terms of this, Police have been advised not to allow any person access to the Polling Station or its precincts from the time of arrival of Police (and SPOs) until the commencement of the poll on Tuesday. The only exception will be Grama Seva Niladharis or their agents.

Special measures are in place for the Police Headquarters in Colombo to receive reports quickly on incidents in any part of the country. Divisional Elections Operations Room have been set up for the purpose with radio links to Colombo.

If Police do not expect the outbreak of any major incidents in other areas, developments in the north have begun to cause serious concerns.

On December 11 the LTTE launched what it calls the continuing third phase of Operation Ceaseless Waves (Oyatha Alaikal). The LTTE claimed in a press release from London that it resumed the "military thrust" after a respite in view of celebrations to mark Heroes Day week.

As reported in these columns last week, Tiger guerrillas launched a Wanni style attack on Elephant Pass defences yesterday. They expected military positions to fall, one after another, like in the Wanni last month. But troops successfully repulsed these attacks last week.

But in heavy fighting last Sunday, the guerrillas succeeded in establishing a beach-head capturing a small coastal stretch extending from Vettilaikerni to Kaddaikadu. The coastal stretch of some three kilometres varied in depth at various points from along Pullaveli and Marathankerni areas.

Vettilaikerny has remained a strategic location in the north east coast. Since the fall of the Mullaitivu military base to guerrilla hands in July, 1996, maritime movements in the coastal stretch between the Jaffna peninsula and Trincomalee were monitored from here. There was a radar and surveillance point. In addition, supplies to the entire Elephant Pass sector were unloaded at Vettilaikerni.

The LTTE claimed in a news release from London that the offensive campaign was "to liberate the Jaffna peninsula" but did not elaborate. Even if the declared aim was that, it was not going to be an easy task like their assaults in the Wanni. For over a week now, troops have been able to confine the guerrillas to the newly established beach-head and prevent them from advancing.

Major General Sarath Munasinghe, Security Forces Commander, Jaffna who is in overall charge of operations was this week joined in by Maj. Gen. Nihal Jayakody. The latter returned to Sri Lanka only a week before after ending a one year stint at the National Defence College in New Delhi.

The LTTE has called the current offensive a renewed phase of Operation Ceaseless Waves (Oyatha Alaikal) 3, a continuation of the same phase that saw the fall of the Wanni military installations beginning with Odusuddan. Ceaseless Waves 1 was the attack on the Mullaitivu defence complex and was concluded in a mere two days. Phase two, the attack on Kilinochchi defences in September, 1998, during "Operation Jaya Sikurui" lasted hardly two days. But troops have held on to the new phase of Ceaseless Waves 3 for nine days so far though there have been some territorial, human and material losses.

It has now become clear that the route of the advance was to cut through the A-9 (Kandy Jaffna highway) across the thin stretch of land that links Jaffna peninsula with Elephant Pass, Paranthan and the rest of mainland Sri Lanka. Such a move would have isolated both Elephant Pass and Paranthan thus placing the troops there under a total siege. But resistance offered by troops and the pouring in of additional strength prevented such a situation. Until now, troops have been able to contain them at the beach-head too.

But that is not to say the worst is over. Pressure on security forces positions in and around Elephant Pass/Paranthan sector has continued. From pre-dawn Thursday, Tiger guerrillas fired artillery and mortars from their positions in Pooneryn towards Thanankilappu, the vast open terrain south east of the peninsula. After a respite for a few hours, they resumed it by late afternoon. Whilst this went on, groups of guerrillas attacked the southern defences at Paranthan junction.

On Friday night Tiger guerrillas moved into Paranthan junction, town and adjoining areas as troop fell back to more secure defensive positions. " We were very conscious of this pull back. Troops are now able to defend them from a secure location," a high ranking military official who spoke on grounds of anonymity declared. He added "come what may, we will stick to positions we now hold until the Presidential polls are over. Thereafter, we will push them back. Unlike in other offensives, they have not had a cake walk. We have given them a good beating." However, the official declined to give casualty figures for the troops except to say many were injured by mortar fire.

At pre-dawn yesterday guerillas attacked the eastern and western defences of Elephant pass. Troops held on at the eastern sector. In the west, defences were breached but soon patched up.

An LTTE statement from London also said troops withdrew from the Paranthan town and claimed that the Elelphant Pass complex was now under serious threat. Paranthan is the last southernmost area after Elephant Pass that was under the control of the security forces. Troops are now said to be located at the original Elephant Pass defences before the re-capture of Paranthan.

Friday also saw the LTTE shoot down a Sri Lanka Air Force Mi-24 Hind helicopter. It was one of two on a sortie to take on LTTE targets at Vettilaikerni.

Squadron Leader Tyronne Silvapulle, regarded as a brave and daring pilot with several achievements to his credit, had lowered the Mi-24 over the Vettilaikerni lagoon to fly over security forces controlled area and gain altitude again. That was when the aircraft, hit by fire, nose dived into the Vettilaikerni lagoon killing him, Co-Pilot Flight Lieutenant H.C.P. de Soysa, Corporal Athula Theja and Leading Aircraftsman L. C. Thushara.

Highly placed security sources say that the Mi-24 was downed by a Surface to Air Missile. Early this week, the LTTE fired similar heat seeking missiles on Mi-24s when they were flying over Thanankilappu. One was fired from the Pooneryn side whilst another had been fired from an unidentified location near Kilaly lagoon. The latter was when an Mi-24 was engaging a boat. The boat was hit and it sank.

This is the second instance where Tiger guerrillas downed a Sri Lanka Air Force Mi-24 helicopter gunship. The first was on November 10, 1997 when another was fired upon over the Kilali lagoon. Squadron Leader Thilina Kaluaratchchi had asked his Co-pilot Flying Officer Dhanesh Gunasekera to command the flight that day. He made a controlled landing on water and one engine caught fire. FO Gunasekera managed to escape but Sqn Ldr Kaluaratchchi was drowned.

The November offensive by the LTTE was timed to gain some vantage in the political developments in the rest of the country. With both the main contenders to the Presidency voicing policies that would open doors for talks with the LTTE, the best option open to the LTTE was to make territorial gains so they could retain that status quo in the event of negotiation. The success in the Wanni offensive was obviously beyond expectation that gave the LTTE the opportunity to expand operations against the Elephant Pass complex.

The strategic location of the Elephant Pass base has from the inception of this conflict thwarted LTTE ambition in the Peninsula. In addition, the recent expansion of this base to Vettilikerni enabled the security forces to maintain some measure of surveillance on the Trincomalee Jaffna sea route, one of two lines of communication open to the Government with Jaffna. The other is by air which has turned out to be enormously expensive. To deny the security forces this advantage would be strategically advantageous to the LTTE, but to do so would mean that the LTTE would also be isolated in Vettilaikerni unless it is a part of a larger politico-military plan.

However, unlike the somewhat thinned out and widespread Army positions in the Wanni, which the LTTE were able to over-run with comparative ease, the Elephant Pass establishment is a compact and well-consolidated base. The LTTE has earlier tried to attack it without success. That they have chosen to do so this time reflects a new found confidence in their own capability to take on the Army in positional combat or they have underestimated the military strength of the Elephant Pass base, an unlikely situation judging from LTTE planning in hindsight. Or else, the LTTE are working to an arcane political agenda.

In this context, it is worth recalling some excerpts from Prabhakarans annual "Martyrs Day" speech. There he states: "Therefore we do not live in fantasy hoping to resolve our national conflict by engaging in a rational dialogue with Sinhala political leadership". He goes on to say, "Today we have reached a turning point in this long historical journey towards emancipation".

Yet, what Prabhakaran has stated is in conflict with what he says elsewhere in the course of that same speech. Therein he calls upon the Government to de-escalate the armed conflict by ending "military aggression and occupation of the Tamil homeland" and initiate peace talks under conditions of normalcy for a negotiated political settlement of the Tamil conflict. In these conflicting statements lies the LTTE rationale to secure territorial advantage so as to be prepared for post election exigencies.

That LTTE "Martyrs Day" commemoration coincided with the period of the presidential elections and the November offensive gave Prabhakaran the opportunity to propagandise the LTTE successes to august proportions so as to impact on both the national and international scene.

The LTTE has always exercised its options to reap maximum political benefit. Their November offensive was no different. This illustrates emphatically that to the LTTE the military offensive is subordinate albeit complementary to their political objective. There is no confusion as to the purpose of their military campaign.

Herein lies the difference with the political planning and management of the war by the Government. The vacillating military strategies seen in the past 16 years reflect the lack of a National political strategy within which framework the military campaign should be designed. Unless and until a National political policy is devised, the military situation will remain nebulous and isolated from National political strategy and contribute to a stalemated war with ever mounting expenditure.

The situation calls for the reassessment of National realities which hopefully will materialise with a revitalised Presidency, to take Sri Lanka into the next millennium, with renewed hopes for peace and prosperity for all its people.

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