30th April 2000
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, admitted to the nation on Friday night that withdrawal of troops from Elephant Pass was a setback.
She said there may have been weaknesses on the part of certain military officials. Some had placed their personal interest above that of the country, she said in a 20-minute address to the nation over Rupavahini.
Mrs. Kumaratunga returned to Sri Lanka on Friday morning cutting short an overseas visit where she was undergoing medical treatment for the eye injury she sustained when a female LTTE suicide bomber attempted to assassinate her at the Town Hall grounds last December. That was during the PA Government's final rally for the 1999 Presidential election.
The same evening, President Kumaratunga chaired a special session of the National Security Council. "Don't tell me what happened. I know all about it. Tell me what you are going to do now," she told those present including Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Her bold admission to the nation that the troop withdrawal and ceding Elephant Pass to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was a setback was in marked contrast to assertions made by Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, that he did not think it to be a debacle or a setback.
He told a news conference last Monday that the withdrawal from Elephant Pass was "purely military" and declared "there was a possibility of the area being surrounded. It would have been very, very difficult to maintain…"
Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya also declared that the Tiger strong point was in the use of firepower. He added, "They used various types of mortars. One 122 mm artillery piece had been used effectively. There was evidence to suggest they had acquired Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRL) and a heavy mortar, probably a 140 mm. These weapons were used against the Elephant Pass defences…"
His assertions that the withdrawal from Elephant Pass was "purely military" and was prompted by fears "it would be surrounded" raises more questions than it answers. The move to abandon Elephant Pass, the first time in the 50 year old history of the Sri Lanka Army that an en masse withdrawal has been made, came barely six months after the devastating debacles in the Wanni. Even without orders to vacate, troops had abandoned positions at Oddusuddan, Nedunkerny, Olumadu, Ampakamam, Mankulam and Kanakarayankulam – military bases that dominated more than one thousand square kilometres of territory.
Seven officers – two Majors General, a Brigadier, a Colonel and three Majors – were sent on compulsory leave for this debacle, then the worst in Army's history (Situation Report – March 26).
If that debacle itself came as unambiguous and clear proof that Elephant Pass was the next LTTE target, there was more. Both the Directorate of Military Intelligence and the Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII) warned that the Tigers were making preparations for an assault on Elephant Pass.
The Situation Report of March 19 headlined 'Troops and Tigers bracing themselves at Elephant Pass" among other matters, made the following points:
"The uneasy lull in the Elephant Pass sector, now the only major battleground for security forces and Tiger guerrillas may not last long…..
"Early this week, intelligence sources learnt that men and logistics were being moved to positions south east of Elephant Pass. Two LTTE military wing leaders, Balraj and Theepan have been inspecting the build up north of Kilinochchi, facing the southern end of Elephant Pass. They were also moving around Murasumodai and Wattakatchi…..
"Intelligence sources say the latest preparations are a prelude to a renewed assault on the Elephant Pass sector, which the LTTE has been trying to overrun since December 11, last year. The Army has virtually doubled its strength by deploying the 53 Division including elements of the Special Forces and the Air Mobile Brigade into the Elephant Pass sector. This sector has earlier been home for the 54 Division……
"They are trying hard for a dramatic victory at Elephant Pass before the peace talks materialise," one high ranking intelligence source said…."
The December 11 attack on Elephant Pass had led to the LTTE establishing a beach-head at Vettilaikerny – the coastal supply point for troops in this strategic area. They had seized control of Paranthan, the southernmost part of Elephant Pass. By mid March, plans were afoot to launch an offensive to oust the guerrillas and seize the lost territory. The operation was scheduled for March 26 but a senior Army officer, who was to lead it, put it off by two days. On that fateful day of March 26, the Tigers launched the attacks that were to culminate in troops abandoning Elephant Pass.
When these attacks led to LTTE capturing more territory including parts of A-9 (Jaffna-Kandy) highway (Situation Report April 2), President Kumaratunga ordered the three security forces commanders – Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya (Army), Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera (Navy) and Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakoddy (Air Force) – to proceed to Jaffna and remain there until the situation was brought under control.
Exactly 20 days after being positioned in Jaffna, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya flew to Colombo to seek Government approval to withdraw (Censored ) from Elephant Pass. There are many questions that beg answers in the public interest. Despite the losses in the Wanni and intelligence warnings, why were no measures taken to secure Elephant Pass and prevent it from being surrounded? More so, when the threat came only from some 3,000 to 3,500 Tiger guerrillas? More on that later.
Justifying his own decision to withdraw, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya says that the LTTE strong point was the use of firepower. Besides "various types" of mortars, a solitary 122 artillery piece," he says, "there was evidence to suggest they (the LTTE) had acquired Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRL) and a heavy mortar, probably a 140 mm."
The fact that the LTTE had acquired MBRLs was known early last year. This is what the Situation Report of October 3, 1999, said:
"…..Last week's incidents in Paranthan has laid bare the fact that the LTTE has been adding to its list of recently acquired stand off weapons. Early this year, they began using Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs)….."
This weapon was extensively used to counter troops advancing in the Wanni during "Operation Rana Gosa." It was during October, last year, that the LTTE use of 140 mm heavy mortar was first discovered. (Censored Censored Censored Censored)
Like in all similar instances, no one appears to be responsible for what President Kumaratunga has admitted was a setback.
TNL's News Editor, Namal Damayantha Perera, asked Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya at last Monday's news conference a strong question – While you were serving as Commander of the Army, you have lost the Wanni area. Now you have lost Elephant Pass. Don't you feel that you should resign and go home?
Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya replied "You can't solve problems by resigning. If I am told to go home, I will go. I did not ask for this post." He was then asked Why did you withdraw ?
Answered Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya "The LTTE suddenly used its maximum fire power to attack us. We had to make a tactical withdrawal…."
Alas, the fact that the LTTE had developed enhanced firepower was known a year ahead. With the fall of the Wanni in November, last year, the fact that Elephant Pass was the next target was a public secret. Why then did a "tactical withdrawal" for "purely military reasons" become necessary. The question becomes uppermost in the public interest since (Censored) soldiers have died and others have been injured. Were their sacrifices in vain and due to somebody's gross incompetence ?
The March 26 attack on Elephant Pass, which led to the Tigers gaining control of more territory, prompted the security forces top brass to plan another operation, this time to evict the LTTE from Vettilaikerny, Paranthan and areas captured during attacks on March 26. It was to be launched on April 17, two days after the Sinhala – Hindu New Year. (Censored Censored) He had feared reprisal attacks by the LTTE to mark the sixth anniversary of Eelam War Three. On April 19, 1995, the LTTE attacked the Navy's Dockyard in Trincomalee after peace talks with the PA government failed.
Ironically for the second time, the LTTE launched its attack on Army positions on April 17. This was undoubtedly the frightening penultimate phase of "Operation Oyatha Alaikal Three" (Ceaseless Waves Three) to cut off Elephant Pass from the Jaffna peninsula – a move that portended disastrous consequences, both militarily and politically to the nation.
It began with what has now turned out to be a deceptive move. More than 200 rounds of 81 mm and 80 rounds of 120 mm mortars began to fall on security forces positions south west of the Jaffna peninsula. They were being fired from Thanankilappu fuelling fears that a final attack to cut off Elephant Pass had began from there. There were also fears it would extend from there towards Chavakahcheri, Eluthumaduval across the narrow lagoon to Nagarkovil. These fears also prompted worries of an LTTE thrust from Chavakachcheri towards Navatkuli, Kodikamam and Mirusuvil.
But the real thrust of the LTTE was elsewhere. Using the Vathirayan area, which they re-captured earlier (Situation Report – April 2, 2000) the Tigers launched a three pronged attack on the re-constituted security forces defence lines in the area.
Re-inforcements that rushed in fought their way and formed a second line of defence for the troops to fall back. A Special Forces group from the 53 Division that moved into the area bolstered the defensive positions in the area. They fired several rounds of artillery. But soon they also came under heavy artillery bombardment from Tiger positions in a location south of Elephant Pass. This forced the security forces to re adjust their defences further by ceding a large extent of the A-9 (Jaffna-Kandy main highway), which was the Main Supply Route (MSR) and falling back to the abandoned rail track that ran some half to one kilometre parallel.
The attacks, reportedly by a group of not more than 600 Tiger cadres, led to security forces fighting pitched gun battles for five days since April 17. On April 19, at night, Tiger guerrillas attacked two T-55 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) (Censored Censored) damaging them badly. Military sources said the surprise attack led to a disruption in the joint movement of armour and infantry units forcing those inside the tanks (Censored).
A huge explosion hours after the incident made senior security forces officials believe the Tigers had exploded the armoured vehicles. But high ranking Military Intelligence (Censored Censored Censored (Censored Censored Censored).
The heavy fighting forced the security forces to further back out of their defence lines. From the abandoned rail track area, they retreated to just ahead of the road that ran hugging the coast via Kilali, Kachchai, Chavakachcheri towards Jaffna – the alternative Main Supply Route (MSR) since the LTTE captured the stretch between Muhamalai to Pallai. The LTTE later extended northwards beyond Muhamalai to Eluthumaduwal. Control of the area kept changing hands from the LTTE to security forces and vice versa as the fighting continued.
In the fighting that followed, the LTTE extended their area of control by more than four kilometres. That is by making a thrust southwards taking over positions held by security forces south of Pallai and moving closer to Elephant Pass. With this thrust over, they began a westerly thrust to reach the shores of the Jaffna lagoon – a move that almost snapped ground links between Elephant Pass and Jaffna.
Alarm bells rang in the defence establishment in Colombo. Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, who was in Jaffna to bring the situation under control, flew down to personally give a briefing to an emergency session of the National Security Council on Friday (April 21). Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya, said troops had planned an operation for April 17 (Censored Censored ). Before the operation could commence on the night of April 17, the LTTE had launched attacks on the same afternoon. (Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored).
By Friday night, (April 21), Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya telephoned Major General Lionel Balagalle, Chief of Staff, who was then at the Security Forces Headquarters in the Wanni. He asked him to issue the withdrawal orders on his behalf. This Maj. Gen. Balagalle did and dispatched it through a courier who slipped through the battle lines to deliver it to Brigadier K. B. Egodawala, officiating GOC of the 54 Division at Elephant Pass.
It was Friday night. The men began preparations for a pull out and started to destroy equipment. This went on till the wee hours next day (Censored Censored). It was only in the sweltering pre-noon heat that the troops began their withdrawal on Saturday (April 22). (Censored Censored). Some were killed and others were wounded. A Chinese built 152 mm artillery gun was seized with its tow vehicle. (Censored).
High ranking military officials say (Censored)were killed in action on the day of the pull out. Of this, the LTTE handed over the bodies of 126. Same sources say (Censored Censored Censored) have been declared Missing in Action. Among the dead were those who suffered acute dehydration. Exhausted by the previous night's tasks, those who walked in the heat with their heavy body armour fell dead by the wayside. Water had become scarce after the wells at Iyakachchi, the only source of supply, were seized by the Tigers.
(Censored Censored Censored Censored).
After the LTTE seized control of Elephant Pass, troops have dug themselves in and were consolidating themselves in a defence line north of Pallai. They have come under intense artillery and mortar barrages.
Last Thursday, the clandestine Voice of Tigers urged civilians to vacate Pallai and adjoining areas. The move appeared to be a precursor to a fresh thrust towards the Jaffna peninsula along the A-9 (Jaffna – Kandy) highway.
(Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored)
Besides chairing an emergency meeting of the National Security Council upon her return, President Kumaratunga also initiated a number of other measures to contain a deterioration of the security situation in the Jaffna peninsula. She issued a decree on Friday calling out retired officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force for active service. It covers retired officers in the ranks of Lieutenant Colonel, Commander in the Navy and Wing Commander in the Air Force. They are to be deployed in non operational areas. Some of the strength in these areas are to be re-deployed in the north to relieve the war weary soldiers.
President Kumaratunga has also invited opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe for a meeting on Tuesday. She will brief him on the security situation and on matters relating to the withdrawal of troops from Elephant Pass.
If there was inaction at the highest levels of the government after the fall of Elephant Pass, with her return from abroad, President Kumaratunga has set in motion a number of measures to contain the highly worrying security situation in the Jaffna peninsula. Coming days and weeks will show how the security forces will cope with their new tasks, which are crucial to the nation in this 18 year long separatist war.
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