Columns - Situation report

Fall of Pooneryn: Crushing blow to Tigers
  • Troops make major advances towards Kilinochchi, but face a long tough way ahead
By Iqbal Athas

There are strong indications that the Tiger guerrillas are coming under heavy military pressure on many fronts. The latest came yesterday. Troops backed by main battle tanks and helicopter gunships made a pre-dawn foray southwards into Tiger guerrilla defences in the now shut down Muhamalai entry exit point. Heavy fighting broke out and both sides suffered casualties. The battles continue. There were reports that the guerrillas carried out gas attacks. The Army has declared officially that canisters containing CS gas are being used by the guerrillas. The CS gas is a substance that is used as a riot control agent and widely regarded as being non-lethal. However, highly placed Army sources told The Sunday Times it was possible that the gas was not CS but some unidentified chemical agent.

Muhamalai is located on the thin isthmus that links Jaffna peninsula to mainland Sri Lanka. It is regarded as the gateway to both the peninsula and the Wanni. The security forces defences there extend in the west from the Jaffna lagoon to the shores of the Indian Ocean in the east. This is the first time in a year troops are trying to breach the heavily fortified guerrilla defences south of Muhamalai. The previous offensive also came in November last year, just a day before President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is also Minister of Finance, presented his Government's third budget in Parliament. In the light of heavy resistance, troops were then forced to retreat to their original positions.

Yesterday's Army picture of troops in re-captured Pooneryn placing the national flag atop the tower of a memorial.

Succumbing to military thrusts from any front would not only force the guerrillas to yield more territory they dominate but also face even more embarrassment. Despite all their efforts, they failed in their bid to hold Pooneryn. It fell to the security forces yesterday after they fought some heavy battles in the past three days. Both sides sustained very heavy casualties during these battles.

The fall of Pooneryn comes with only ten days to go for their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to deliver his "Maveerar" ("Great Heroes") day address. That it was a humiliating defeat for the guerrillas came from radio intercepts from the battlefield. A senior Army officer in the battlefront said one group blamed the other. "The anger and humiliation was reflected by the obscene language they used against each other," he declared. For the 19th year in succession Prabhakaran will set out the "achievements" of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the current year and his plans for next year. The address comes just a day after his 54th birthday.

Yesterday's thrust by troops in Muhamalai, if successful, will take them to Pallai. Their advance in the direction of Kilinochchi, until recently the political capital of the guerrillas, lay ahead after Soranpattu, Elephant Pass and Paranthan. This thrust from the northern edge of territory dominated by the guerrillas will no doubt compel them to face an added threat in defending Kilinochchi. Until yesterday, the major thrust here came only from the Army's 57 Division at Akkarayankulam. This Division is trying to overcome guerrilla resistance to enter Kilinochchi.

The resistance has delayed troops from re-capturing this strategic northern town. Repeated official claims in the past two months or more, however, at first said that they were within a couple of kilometres. Thereafter, it was claimed that they were within a few hundred metres until attention was shifted by official quarters to other fronts in the battle area. In this sector, the guerrillas have been busy fortifying their defences further to stall a troop advance into Kilinochchi.

Army sources in Mannar said yesterday that the guerrillas were mining areas ahead of the villages of Akkarayan, neighbouring Muhanbaan and Kanakapuram. Mortar and gun positions have also been placed at selected locations in the vast stretch of open land that lay ahead of the paths troops will traverse. Bulldozers were being used to dig a ditch cum bund. Sinpers have been moved in. "Their top priority is to prevent the fall of Kilinochchi at any cost. To this end, they are putting all their resources, including cadres withdrawn from other areas to defend it," these sources said. The remarks underscore the importance of Kilinochchi to the LTTE.

Its fall could spell the beginning of the end of guerrilla domination of territory. Once troops reach Kilinochchi, guerrilla targets in the adjoining Mullaitivu district will come under artillery range of the troops. Military intelligence sources say leaders placed in charge of defending the Kilinochchi sector, particularly Deepan and Bhanu, have been regularly meeting their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran to obtain advice and directions on how to fortify the area further.

Some of the significant gains this week came from the Army's Task Force 1. Troops moving in the land area along the western seacoast have swept through re-capturing vast swathes of land. This week they gained control of Kiranchi, Valappadu, Devil's Point and Palavi - all located on the promontory that juts into the Palk Straits. In the light of intense pressure, the guerrillas had withdrawn.

Yesterday troops re-captured Pooneryn after going beyond Nallur, which is located on the Pooneryn-Kilinochchi road. It is 11 kilometres from Pooneryn to Kilinochchi along this road. This came after bitter battles on Friday. The LTTE had earlier re-inforced the area with Sea Tigers and trained civilian cadres to prevent troops from seizing the strategic town on whose outer fringes lay the Jaffna lagoon. It was only last week Mr. Prabhakaran had ordered "Col. Sornam," who was in charge of the Weli Oya sector to move to Pooneryn to defend the area. For the first time the LTTE had also deployed what was identified as Yarl Chellum Padai (Force Headed for Jaffna).

The name laid bare LTTE plans to raise a separate unit with designs to move to Jaffna. However, the guerrillas had shifted all their logistics from Pooneryn to Kilinochchi fearing the area would fall to troops. There were reports yesterday that some guerrilla cadres had deserted positions amidst the onslaught by troops.

The news of the re-capture was conveyed to President Mahinda Rajapaksa by Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka ahead of a special meeting of the National Security Council (NSC). The weekly meeting on Wednesday could not be held since Mr. Rajapaksa was away in India. It was re-scheduled for Friday but the President's delayed arrival in Colombo led to the meeting being fixed for yesterday.

Before taking part in the NSC meeting, both President Rajapaksa and Lt. Gen. Fonseka took time off to give voice cuts to television and radio.

President Rajapaksa urged LTTE leader Prabhakaran, to lay down arms and negotiate peace with his Government. Laying down arms is one issue which the guerrillas have repeatedly rejected during their two and half decades of military campaign interspersed with periods of peace talks. The call may not even receive a response. More so, since Mr. Rajapaksa has publicly declared several times that the LTTE leader, if captured would be handed over to India. He is wanted there for the guerrilla assassination of one time Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

The re-capture of Pooneryn will not only facilitate the resumption of a land based supply route from Mannar to Jaffna. Such a route from the ferry at Sangupiddy (near Pooneryn) across the Jaffna (Kilaly) lagoon connected Karativu, located south of the peninsula. The move would take a few months since repairs to and securing roads north of Karativu, that run through vast marsh fields are completed.

An even more significant advantage is the denial to the LTTE of the Pooneryn area to direct artillery fire, particularly to installations in the Security Forces Headquarters, Jaffna (SFHQ-J). In the past, such artillery fire has prevented flights from landing at the Palaly airbase. It also helps troops to advance eastwards along the Pooneryn-Kilinochchi road opening another front to seize the besieged one-time guerrilla centre of political power. It was dismantled in the wake of troops advance.

The re-capture of Pooneryn brings to a close the troops re-capture of the entire Wanni, west of the A-9 Kandy-Jaffna highway. With the western seacoast under their full control, thus, the security forces have succeeded in denying guerrillas the use of the seas of the Gulf of Mannar or parts of the Palk Straits to induct war-like material from suspected bases in the southern sectors of Tamil Nadu. See map on this page for details.

The defence complex at Pooneryn in the years past remained isolated. It was the Navy that moved supplies through the Jaffna lagoon. It came under a siege after guerrillas downed two Air Force transport planes on April 28 and 29, 1995. Since then, it was supplied by air by Air Force helicopters. In November 1993, guerrillas launched a fierce attack on the complex killing 12 officers and 629 soldiers. The defence complex at Pooneryn was shut down in April 1997 by then Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte. This was in the light of additional troop requirements to launch Operation Jaya Sikurui (Victory Assured) in May 1997. This failed offensive was to link Kilinochchi with Vavuniya, both towns then under government control.

However, the guerrillas gained control of Kilinochchi in 1998. Also making significant gains were troops from the Army's Task Force 3. For the first time, troops from this Task Force seized more than a two-kilometre stretch of the A-9 Kandy-Jaffna highway. From an area between Murikandi and Uyilankulam, troops advanced eastwards. They regained the highway area and have advanced over three kilometres into guerrilla held territory. Thus, they have positioned themselves south of Kokavil.

It is further southeast of this location that troops of the Army's 59 Division are advancing north of the Weli Oya sector.

Whilst troops here have met with stiff guerrilla resistance in their thrust in a northerly direction, they have extended their flank considerably on both the western and eastern flanks. They have reached the Thannimuruppukulam-Kumalamunai road and a section of the village of Kumalamunai. It lay northwest of the Nayaru lagoon.

Guerrilla leader Jeyam, who was earlier responsible for the Pooneryn sector has been moved to be in charge of Weli Oya north.

Troops are on a high state of alert not only in the Wanni but also in a number of other areas outside the battle zones. On Thursday evening reports of a Tiger guerrilla aircraft being airborne and headed somewhere towards Trincomalee led to frantic activity. Air Force F-7 interceptor jets scrambled to the skies to track the intruding aircraft but returned to base shortly thereafter. It is not immediately clear whether the radar detection was that of a suspicious guerrilla aircraft or an international flight.

The re-capture of Pooneryn and thus regaining complete control of the western part of Wanni is a singular achievement for the Army. In the ongoing offensives during Eelam War IV they have made considerably remarkable gains, some never before during their campaigns in previous phases of the Eelam wars.

The LTTE does not have the numbers to defend a vast swathe of land or face the more sophisticated, conventional strength of the security forces. The shortage of fuel in the Wanni has hit them badly. It can be worse in the coming weeks since stocks can no longer be smuggled in through the west coast. There have been reports of injured cadres being re-deployed in some sectors to play secondary roles. There have also been desertions. Some have been arrested and re-deployed.

There would naturally be euphoria after the re-capture of Pooneryn, a major achievement for the Army accomplished at great cost. Officers and men have laid down their lives for this. Others have lost legs, limb or sustained injuries. Yet, their colleagues are determined to finish the task before them.

However, in the light of this, the LTTE should not be underestimated. The guerrillas have lost vast extents of territory, most of it, which they dominated unchallenged after the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002. However, they have not lost their military capability altogether. Their hard-core cadres are defending Kilinochchi. Their Sea Tigers as well as the primitive air capabilities remain. That only means the security forces, to whom all the recent victories belong, have a lot more to do.

Soldiers on bad footing

Govt. seeks donations for foot spray and powder

One of the vagaries of the ongoing military campaign in the Wanni is the enormous hardships the foot soldiers, the real heroes of the Government's war effort, endure.

There is no drinking water. Large quantities of bottled water have to be transported from Colombo. For some in the frontlines a hot meal is a luxury. There are occasions when meals turn stale by the time they arrive. This is not because their senior officers are not concerned. They have to worry about how to get the food to them without enemy interruption. Tractors carrying them have to move cautiously. A bath is only when sources of water is available. That could even be a week or two. There is no contact with their loved ones for weeks.

When they are injured in the battlefield, they have to endure a rough tractor ride to the rear for evacuation. That could take as much as three to four hours. It is only thereafter that they are either airlifted or transported by road to hospitals.

During recent rains, most soldiers had to brave heavy downpour. They are drenched. Even this week, there have been occasional showers and cloudy skies. Having to remain in their wet battle fatigues or uniform is bad enough. What is worse is when they are compelled to be with their soggy socks and boots. This has led to skin rash, fungal, bacterial and other complications. More rains will only mean more soldiers are affected.

To meet the needs of the troops in the battlefield, the Government has appealed to the Sri Lankan community living abroad for donations in the form of foot spray and foot powder.

It wants to collect as large a quantity as possible free of charge. It is not clear why Government funds, like the billions spent to procure weapons and related equipment, could not be utilised to meet the needs of soldiers. Surely, they are high priority. The soldiers have laid down their lives, suffered injuries and those who remain have ventured forth to fight the guerrillas. Ironically, appeals for free donations have to be made on their behalf.

This is what a circular fax (No: 196) from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo dated November 7 sent to all Sri Lankan heads of missions and Consulates abroad states:

"Donation of Foot Spray/Foot Powder."A necessity has arisen for obtaining supplies of the above mentioned items for use by the security forces.

This Ministry understands that these products are used to prevent fungal and bacterial foot infection (note: prevention is highlighted since a spray/powder for treatment also exists).The product should ideally contain a potent anti-fungal/anti-bacterial compound, the main ingredient of which contains 1% Triclosan.

The Defence Ministry has indicated that the current product used by them is under the trade name Irgesan DP-300.The trade name is indicated here for purpose of information only and these products by any other trade name are also in order.

"Hon Minister of Foreign Affairs wishes you to obtain whatever possible quantities of these products on a gratis basis and have them sent urgently. On hearing from you, this Ministry would make arrangements for such consignments to be carried by Sri Lankan Airlines on a similar basis. Dispatch of sufficiently large quantities is recommended.

"Missions located in cities/countries where Sri Lankan Airlines does not operate, are requested to arrange for transport on a complimentary basis to the nearest Sri Lankan connecting point. Your urgent and personal attention on this matter has been requested by the Hon Foreign Minister."

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