Columns - Situation report

Bitter battles, heavy toll, Tiger strongholds under siege
  • Troops advance on several fronts, recruitment stepped up, hundreds of deserters return
  • Govt and diplomatic community await Prabha's 'Maveerar' speech
By Iqbal Athas

With just three days to go for Tiger guerrilla leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran's "Maveerar" (Great Heroes) Day speech, the Army has placed siege on Kilinochchi and the adjoining Mullaitivu areas.

All land routes have been sealed off. With the exception of food convoys and emergency medical needs of civilians, entry or exit into these areas has been severely restricted. Trains and buses heading towards Vavuniya are being terminated in Anuradhapura since Tuesday. Earlier, they operated services upto Medawachchiya. Movement of civilians or traffic south of Vavuniya has also been restricted. Only those proceeding towards Vavuniya are being allowed. This is to prevent possible infiltration and attacks in areas outside the Wanni by guerrillas.

A main battle tank in Pooneryn re-captured by the Army on November 15.

The past few days have seen the intensification of the military campaign. Besides the main aim of regaining more rebel-dominated territory, it appears, the military wants to deny guerrillas freedom of movement to celebrate the event on a bigger scale.

Beginning last Friday, religious ceremonies to commemorate the deaths of guerrilla cadres since their separatist campaign began had started in Mullaitivu. Next of kin were flocking to cemeteries and temples. On Thursday, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran will make his 19th annual speech. There, he is expected to set out his organisation's achievements in the past year and its future plans.

Tamil diaspora abroad are also observing the event in some world capitals. The Foreign Ministry in Colombo has alerted Sri Lanka diplomatic missions abroad, particularly those in countries where the LTTE is banned, to monitor and report on these events. The move is a prelude to raising issue with the Government's of the countries concerned.

After four days of fierce battles, where both sides suffered heavy casualties, troops re-captured the first line of guerrilla defences at Muhamalai. The area is the divide between government-controlled Jaffna peninsula and the guerrilla-dominated Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. This came on Thursday after the Army's 53 and 55 Divisions made a deadly onslaught towards the guerrilla frontline. They were supported by armour and artillery. Air Force Mi-24 helicopter gunships provided close air support.

As exclusively revealed in The Sunday Times (Situation Report) last week, the Army's thrust south of Muhamalai began on November 15 (Saturday). The first line of guerrilla defences remained cheek by jowl with those of the Army. At some points, it is separated only by a distance of some 50 metres. Troops who are stepping up the pressure on guerrillas will now have to break through the second and third lines of defence before they could reach Pallai.

Tiger guerrilla abandoned their newly constructed bunkers when troops from the Army’s 59 Division advanced towards the village of Andankulam in the Weli Oya sector. It is located south of Kumalamunai.

Once a thriving coconut growing area, scorched trees here bear evidence to the intensity of the war. It is thereafter that the troops have to advance through Soranpattu, Elephant Pass, Paranthan to Kilinochchi. In the past, Muhamalai has been one of the sectors where the guerrillas have offered fierce resistance to the Army's advance.

The recapture of Pooneryn and its immediate environs, an achievement that has led to national euphoria, has helped the Army to open another front to move towards Kilinochchi. Troops are advancing along the Pooneryn-Paranthan road. Ahead of the A-9 (Kandy-Jaffna) highway, this road bifurcates. One leads to the Paranthan junction, the other to Kilinochchi town.

The Government has lost no time in swinging into action to restore the land-based supply route from Mannar to the Jaffna peninsula. A Colombo-based firm has been tasked with repairing the A-32 (Mannar-Navatkuli) road on a priority basis.

Initially security authorities propose to use this route for movement of troops and supplies to and from the Jaffna peninsula. At present, a larger number of troops are moved by the passenger vessel Jetliner which has a capacity to carry 3,000. In the light of threats, a fleet of Dvora fast attack craft (FAC) and helicopter gunships escort the vessel on its voyage from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai (KKS).

A jetty is to be built near Sangupiddy from where a ferry service will operate to Karativu, located south of the peninsula across the Jaffna lagoon. A ferry service existed in this area two decades ago. It is likely that the new jetty will be a distance away from Sangupiddy since the location, as at present, remains within artillery range of the guerrillas.

The Government is also chalking out a number of development plans for the western Wanni sector. They will await implementation only after the security situation there is stabilised.

For this purpose, an Army cantonment is to be established in the Pooneryn area. Re-settlement of civilians in this sector as well as opening the A-32 highway for civilian use will follow thereafter. Another plan is to set up fishing villages in and around Devil's Point. It is located on the promontory that juts into the Palk Straits.

In Jaffna, three wheeler scooter taxi drivers drove in a procession from hospital road junction through several roads for over four hours to mark the Army's victory in Pooneryn. They lit crackers, chanted slogans and some even beat drums. One slogan said "congratulations to our heroes" whilst another declared "if President Rajapaksa can send his son to the armed forces, why not we join." The Jaffna Chamber of Commerce put up posters in the town area to mark the victory. Last Friday afternoon, two grenades were lobbed at a shop owned by Janek Kumar, President of the Chamber. No one was hurt. However, the attack appeared a warning from guerrillas who had infiltrated the peninsula.

As revealed exclusively in The Sunday Times (Situation Report) last week, the Army's Task Force 3, for the first time, seized more than a two and half kilometre stretch of the A-9 (Kandy-Jaffna) highway. This was from an area between Murikandi and Uyilankulam. This week troops in the newly captured areas advanced southwards. They recaptured Mankulam on Monday thus extending their control of a much larger stretch of the A-9 highway. There was barely any resistance and the guerrillas had made a hurried retreat. Among vehicles recovered was an armour-plated truck, where guerrilla leaders held meetings.

The next day, troops from the Army's Task Force 2 advanced northwards from Omanthai, until recently the only entry-exit point to Wanni. They recaptured Puliyankulam, an area where there was a string of pitched battles during Operation Jaya Sikurui (Victory Assured). During this operation, troops trying to link areas under guerrilla control between Vavuniya with Kilinochchi met with stiff rebel resistance. Now, both the Task Force 3 and 2 have begun advancing in an easterly direction into areas dominated by the guerrillas.

Both the Task Force 2 and 3 may link up with the 59 Division as they continue their advance. See map on this page for the latest on the battlefront.

Even before the Task Force 2 moved northwards from Omanthai the guerrillas had withdrawn some of their cadres and logistics from their end of the entry-exit point there. On November 18 this gateway to the Wanni has been rendered ineffective. This was after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) withdrew. The Army wants to set up an entry-exit point in Mankulam. The guerrillas have moved their facilities to Oddusuddan.

The ICRC said this week it is currently facilitating talks to "find suitable arrangements for a crossing between the territories controlled by each of the two parties." An ICRC statement said, "all arrangements concerning crossing-point procedures, including location and opening hours, must be agreed to by both the government and the LTTE." Until a clear arrangement is found, the ICRC said, it will continue to approach both parties on a case by case basis.

This is to facilitate the movement of ambulances and the transfer of bodies of security force and LTTE fighters. Working out arrangements mutually agreeable to both the Government and the LTTE will be an unenviable task for the ICRC in the coming weeks. This is in the light of changing ground positions.

The Army's 57 Division in Akkarayankulam has been attempting several forays into guerrilla fortifications ahead of Kokavil (on the A-9 highway) and towards Kilinochchi. North of the Weli Oya sector, troops of the 59 Division re-captured the entire village of Kumalamunai, located north west of the Nayaru lagoon. This has led to the guerrillas shifting their bases and hideouts further north. In this sector, they have successfully advanced northwards to move their frontlines. On Friday, troops regained control of Andankulam by seizing an abandoned training camp. In this sector, the guerrilla had fortified their defences with bunkers and other obstacles to prevent a troop advance.

It is thus clear that troops have surrounded Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu from the north, west and south. In the east, Naval patrols have been intensified in the sea. Troops are engaged in six different thrusts towards guerrilla strongholds.

One of the immediate necessities brought about by the ongoing military campaign is the need for more troops. This is not only to fill vacancies caused by desertions but also to expand the existing strength. The latest offer of an amnesty for deserters has prompted 2600 soldiers to return in just one day. Towards this end, recruitment drives have been stepped up. Provision is also being made to accommodate more recruits at the Infantry Training School in Minneriya. The Security Forces Headquarters in Minneriya has been moved to Welikanda where the Army's 23 Division is located. This Division has been shifted to Poonani.

There were a few temporary changes in Army postings in operational areas. Major General G.P.R. de Silva has been appointed as acting Security Forces Commander, Jaffna in addition to his duties as Director General – General Staff at Army Headquarters.

Major General G.A. Chandrasiri, the Security Forces Commander, Jaffna and Brigadier Udaya Perera, Director (Operations) at Army Headquarters are now in the UK. They are due to speak at the Royal College of Defence Studies on the achievements of the Army in the ongoing military campaign against Tiger guerrillas. Director of Military Intelligence (DMI) Brigaider Amal Karunasekera is acting as Director (Operations) in addition to his substantive duties.

The General Officer Commanding the Army’s 57 Division, Major General Jagath Dias is away from Sri Lanka. Acting for him, in addition to his substantive duties, is Brigadier Chagi Gallage, Director Training at Army Headquarters.

In this backdrop, the latest to meet LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was S. Jeyanandamoorthy, Batticaloa district MP. Together with Chandrakanthan Chandra Nehru, they travelled to Wanni on October 29 and returned to Colombo on November 20.

At the entry-exit point at Omanthai which was then operational, the two MPs had told security officials that they were travelling to Wanni to help two of their parliamentary colleagues to return. One of them had been sick. The MPs were Selvaraja Kajendran (Jaffna district) and Sathasivam Kanakaratnam (Wanni District). They had gone to Kilinochchi four months ago and were unable to return due to the outbreak of war.

Mr. Jeyanandamoorthy was the focal point of attention in Colombo's diplomatic community as well as senior opposition politicians. This was after his one-on-one meeting with Mr. Prabhakaran at an undisclosed location. The journalist turned politician told them what the LTTE leader had said - that they would recapture the areas lost within three months. Some opposition parliamentarians who heard him say the statements may have been made to bolster the morale of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). However, Mr. Jeyanandamoorthy was emphatic that the LTTE's responses to the recent developments would come when their leader makes his annual speech on Thursday.

The loss of Pooneryn, followed by the fall of Mankulam, has come as huge setbacks for the LTTE. Despite the ongoing military campaign, both government leaders and security forces top brass, would no doubt want to know what the LTTE leader would say. But they are yet determined to keep the pressure high in the next three days.

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