The opportunity of announcing to the nation the accomplishment of main objectives of ongoing military offensives in the Wanni eluded President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, for a second year in succession.
ON THE FRONTLINES: An Army battle tank in Akkarayankulam. Photo by Priyantha Hewage
This was when he, as Minister of Finance, presented the government's fourth budget in Parliament on Thursday - an event seen on television and heard on the radio by millions of Sri Lankans.
On three different fronts, troops are still engaging the Tiger guerrillas. Most significant among them is the thrust of the Army's 57 Division for the much-awaited re-capture of Kilinochchi. Until recently, it was the centre of political power for the guerrillas.
The other is the successful advance of troops of the Army's Task Force 1 (the precursor to the 58 Division) to within eight kilometres from Pooneryn. The third is the advance of troops north of Weli Oya.
Conscious of the possibility of Kilinochchi or Pooneryn falling to troops this week, the guerrillas have offered stiff resistance. By assuming a defensive role, if they have denied final victories this week, there is now a marked shift. There are strong indications that they are attempting to switch to an offensive role as well.
This is in view of the upcoming "Maveerar" (Great Heroes) Day on November 27. It will mark the 54th birthday of guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Since 1989, on this day every year he makes a "policy" statement which includes references to what are considered achievements by the group. Successive governments and the Colombo-based diplomatic community have been keeping a close watch on this.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chose November 27 as "Maveerar" ("Great Heroes) day in remembrance of Lt. Shankar alias Sathianathan. He was shot by an Army commando on November 27, 1982 in Jaffna and was taken across the Palk Straits for treatment in a hospital in Tamil Nadu. This was when Mr. Prabhakaran had taken refuge in the southern Indian state. Upon his return to Sri Lanka, he together with some 600 cadres launched the annual event. The first one was held in the jungles of Niththikaikulam in the Mullaitivu district.
The Army's 57 Division is now in full control of the one time farming village of Akkarayan. Troops have proceeded beyond a ditch cum bund the guerrillas have constructed and are advancing in the general area north of Akkarayankulam. Another column is fighting to breach guerrilla defences at Kokavil to reach the A-9 Kandy-Jaffna highway. Early this week additional troops moved into this area as well as locations south of it.
The Army's Task Force 1 is advancing along the A-32 Mannar-Pooneryn highway. Troops who seized the coastal village of Nachchikuda, once a major Sea Tiger base, have now reached Sempankundu, some eight kilometres before Pooneryn.
Reaching there will lead to a major accomplishment. It will pave the way for the resumption of the ferry service across the Jaffna (Kilaly) lagoon that existed two decades ago. It was from Sangupiddy on the mainland to Karativu located in the southern fringe of the Jaffna peninsula.
Troops advancing towards Pooneryn have laid siege to an extent of land further west of Sempankundu. See map for the location. This map also sets out the area re-captured by the security forces and those still dominated by the guerrillas.
It is not immediately clear whether the guerrillas still remain in the area under siege or have withdrawn. According to Army sources in Mannar, a group that had operated there were supplied by guerrilla boats that had slipped through naval cordons.
However, the Navy has intensified patrols in the sector now. The Army received warnings through its intelligence channels that the guerrillas planned counter attacks from positions in the rear to stall their advance towards Pooneryn.
In the separatist war of nearly two and half decades (interspersed by phases of peace talks), Pooneryn has achieved notoriety as a killing field. A defence complex made up of the Army and the Navy was located in this area earlier to prevent the guerrillas supplying Jaffna, which they dominated. The guerrillas attacked the complex on November 11, 1993. An Army Court of Inquiry into the incident declared that eight officers and 233 soldiers were killed. Their report said a further four officers and 233 soldiers were missing in action. None of those reported as missing in action turned up, thus bringing the death toll to 12 officers and 629 soldiers.
The Pooneryn defence complex was closed down in October 1994. Its closure was one of the LTTE demands placed before then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga when she initiated peace talks. That dialogue collapsed after the guerrillas attacked the Trincomalee harbour, home for the Navy's eastern naval area headquarters.
Troops in the Weli Oya sector have also met with considerable resistance. However, they are widening their path of advance and secured the village of Gajabapura recently. Army sources say the guerrillas are continuing to deploy prisoners, who were arrested for deserting ranks, on this sector. They are reported to be laying mines and other improvised explosive devices to stall troop advance.
On all three sectors in the Wanni where major military thrusts continue, troops are determined to breakthrough guerrilla defences. Senior Army officials express confidence that their tasks could be accomplished before December this year. Even if the opportunity of the budget speech could not be utilised for an announcement to the nation on a major success in the battlefronts, it could still be told to Parliament. The ongoing budget debate ends only in December.
Last year, when President Rajapaksa presented his third budget to Parliament, a similar situation arose. Troops at Muhamalai tried to advance. The offensive by seven battalions on November 7, 2007, came just a day before the budget. Here are excerpts of how The Sunday Times (Situation Report) of November 11, 2007 reported the incident:
"Before the crack of dawn on Wednesday, troops broke out from their defended localities astride Muhamalai. It lay on the northern end of the thin isthmus that links mainland Sri Lanka to the Jaffna peninsula. The entry exit point or the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula from the Wanni is located almost in the middle of this defence line. Artillery began to rain on guerrilla positions. Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) located in the rear of the advancing troops also fired at guerrilla targets. Giving air cover were Mi-24 helicopter gunships of the Air Force.
"Their mission was to advance in the direction of Kilinochchi, the guerrilla heartland by seizing territory dominated by them. They smashed through the first line of guerrilla defences and advanced. Dawn had broken. Rear elements were holding the bunkers and the lengthy mound that formed their defences. Their colleagues forged ahead.
"The guerrillas retaliated with mortar, machine gun, rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire. Fierce gun battles ensued. This is where the grit and valour of the brave troops was exhibited in abundance. Some of them came to the aid of their colleagues who were either hit by gunfire or were trapped. Troops soon realised that the guerrillas had allowed them to advance some distance before offering heavy resistance.
"A tactical withdrawal became necessary. Therefore, they made a gradual pull back. They had to give up the guerrilla defence line they were holding for over an hour. There is no gainsaying that troops from seven battalions that took part in the offensive were bold enough to thrust their way forward. In war, making tactical withdrawals in the light of enemy surprises or traps is quite common. That is how they re-group, re-arm and ready themselves to fight another day……..
"It would have been different if the troops did succeed in capturing guerrilla held terrain south of the Muhamalai defence lines. This is one occasion when the country would have known the good news within minutes. There is no doubt President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was reading the budget speech heard and seen live on television by millions of Sri Lankans would have interrupted the budget speech to make it known. That was not to be. Troops who broke out around 5.30 a.m. were back in the original positions in some three hours…………"
The impending "Maveerar" (Great Heroes) day has prompted the security establishment to intensify enhanced protective measures in areas outside the battle zones. This includes not only vulnerable targets but also close protection for VVIPs and VIPs whose threat perceptions have heightened. Based on intelligence reports a number of areas where air or ground attacks by guerrillas are likely, security has been intensified. In the City of Colombo and suburbs, they include the port as well as the oil refinery at Sapugaskanda.
On Thursday, following reports that a group of armed guerrillas wearing black uniforms had arrived by a boat in the sea shores in Panama, troops and police in the area were alerted. The group was identified by villagers. Panama is located north of Okanda on the north eastern fringe of the Yala National Park.
During early hours of Wednesday, the Air Force unit located at the Security Force Headquarters-Wanni (SFHQ-W) in Vavuniya located what appeared to be a suspicious aircraft on their radar screen. The Air Defence Operations Room at Army headquarters (AHQ) was among military installations that were alerted, They in turn alerted all Army installations warning them to beware of a guerrilla aircraft over their skies. High ranking officers turned up at AHQ hours before dawn to monitor and to initiate action against any possible air intrusions. News soon arrived from the Air Force that the blip on the radar in Vavuniya was that of an international flight. There was no evidence of any guerrilla aircraft being airborne or detected by radar at that hour.
The government-controlled Jaffna peninsula and the East are areas where intelligence reports have also warned of possible attacks. In the peninsula infiltration by groups with war-like material has led to a number of detections in the recent weeks. This has led to fears whether plans were afoot to penetrate the high security zone around the Palaly defence complex. Whilst pistol gangs have been tasked to attack members of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal, particularly in the districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, intelligence sources say, guerrillas had also carried out surveillance on military installations. Guerrilla groups operating in the Yala jungles had also extended their activities to some parts of Ampara.
The "Maveerar" (Great Heroes) day is preceded by a week of observances. Families of dead cadres turn up at various cemeteries to take part in ceremonies to remember their loved ones. "Ahead of November 27, they (the guerrillas) will try to gain some military advantage. That is both for political and propaganda mileage," warns a senior military intelligence source who spoke on grounds of anonymity. They are not authorised to speak to the media. He added that there were many signs the guerrillas would try to resort to offensive action to achieve this.
Those remarks seem to underscore the necessity for heavier security precautions at least for the next 18 days. That is to deny any gains to the guerrillas when the troops are on their doorstep.