Five months after the Mullaitivu military debacle, the worst in Sri Lanka's history, the nation was again gripped by fear of a repetition.
More than 2,000 LTTE men and women cadres stormed the Paranthan-Elephant Pass defence complex in a pre-dawn attack last Thursday. Fierce fighting erupted. As the battle continued, a breakdown in communications created an information blackout causing anxiety and panic in the defence establishment. A grim reminder of the sequence of events at Mullaitivu.
Whilst Tiger cadres pinned down troops on the western flank at Paranthan, the main attack was launched from the east. Wave after wave of attackers maintained a continuous onslaught. Soon groups of Tiger guerrillas infiltrated the defences and turned the axis of attack to engage the southern flank of the Elephant Pass military base. Some two hours after dawn, Tigers had succeeded in creating a gap in the contiguous defences that extended from Elephant Pass through Paranthan to Kilinochchi.
With the link-up of the two-directional east and west attack, the Tigers dominated the Paranthan area, which is mid-way in the defence system between Elephant Pass and Kilinochchi. This cut off Kilinochchi from the overall defence complex, isolating 54 Division Headquarters located in Kilinochchi.
Paucity of information following the communications break-down gave rise to fears of the possibility of Kilinochchi being over-run. Needless to say that the picture the events portended was very grim to those in the higher echelons of the defence establishment in Colombo.
None other than the Commander-in-Chief, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, arrived at the Operations Room at Army Headquarters, on hearing the news.
This was the second time in just a month that she had rushed to Army Headquarters to personally keep tabs on a crisis situation. She was there earlier on December 7 soon after news reached her that Deputy Defence Minister General Anuruddha Ratwatte and a team of highest ranking defence officials on a helicopter flight to Weli Oya had gone missing. After the Minister and party were rescued in a tense drama, she was to remark that she felt she had lost ten years of her life span.
On hand to help her get a detailed brief on what went on was Army Commander. Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte. They were in continuous radio contact with Major General Asoka Jayawardena, the Overall Operation Commander (OOC).
Major General Jayawardena and Brigadier Sisira Wijesuriya, Director (Operations) of the Army had flown to Palaly defence complex for a previously scheduled planning conference. They immediately switched their attention to formulating contingency plans. In fact, on Wednesday night, Major General Jayawardena had alerted military installations in the north of a possible LTTE attack. This followed a warning from the Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence.
The attack on the Paranthan-Elephant Pass defences came just a day after the second anniversary of the cease-fire between the LTTE and the PA Government. That cease-fire was then agreed upon to coincide with the birth anniversary of the late S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.
The counter attack on the LTTE infiltrated positions were launched from two directions. Northwards from the isolated Paranthan-Kilinochchi defence position and southwards from the main defence position at Elephant Pass. The offensive was supported by SLAF aircraft attacking Tiger guerrilla positions.
A female Tiger suicide bomber exploded herself in front of an advancing tank setting it on fire.
By the evening of Thursday, the counter attacking columns had linked up and restored the defensive position. Mopping up continued through to Friday and even yesterday. By then the military casualties were reportedly, 89 killed in action and 253 wounded in action.
Military officials say the death toll yesterday had exceeded the 220 mark as clearing operations extended to peripheral defence positions. More than 350 who are injured, some of them seriously, are in hospitals in Colombo and Anuradhapura. It included ten civilians.
Around 70 are reported to be in critical condition. A further number is said to be Missing in Action. It is not immediately clear whether they have been taken captive.
Initial reports of equipment losses indicate that the enemy had seized a substantial quantity of small arms and ammunition as well as some radio equipment. Military officials in the over-run positions claimed they had immobilised some 130 mm artillery and ammunition lest they fall into enemy hands. Each piece of this artillery is worth US $ 65,000.
In as much as the decision to immobilise equipment is a decision to be taken by ground commanders depending on the gravity of the threat situation. Some military experts question as to how artillery which is normally deployed in depth positions came to be endangered. Was the LTTE penetration to such great depth or was the defence lay-out was shallow?
They point out that unlike the Mullaitivu Military Base which was in a very limited land area, the Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi complex is an extensive area. Of course, on the other hand, the very expanse of the base makes it vulnerable to infiltration and attack. These are technical matters for specialists to consider. Yet they require a hard look at, for the loss of valuable life and expensive equipment has become not too uncommon. Wars are costly, yet to minimise human and equipment losses whilst attaining military objective is the balance to achieve.
The fuller sequence of events that led to the temporary debacle at Paranthan-Elephant Pass is still not clear. Major General Asoka Jayawardena, OOC, was in the area yesterday making a full assessment of the damage and corrective measures necessary.
As much as the detail of this operation needs examination, so should be reviewed the overall strategy which enable the LTTE to retain initiative in spite of military gains by the security forces.
With the conclusion of the operations Riviresa and Sathjaya, the LTTE was ousted from the population centres of the northern provinces into the sparsely populated scrub jungle of Wanni. The LTTE not offering resistance to the conventional weight of the Army advance chose to strategically withdraw into the Wanni in the classical pattern of guerrilla strategy. In doing so, the LTTE shrewdly kept its organisation and combat strength very much intact.
Having done so, the LTTE kept open options for a wide scale of tactical and strategic choices. Its immediate focus was to extend its operational activity throughout the north and east, with emphasis to destabilise the east whilst maintaining a threat of infiltration into the peninsula.
Whilst spreading their deployment the Tigers yet retained the capability of concentrating their forces to take on larger government targets. The operational plans and deployment of the security forces have been unable, or at best only limited, in denying the LTTE freedom of movement. Neither have intelligence sources been able to contribute to this regard with any effect.
The LTTE annihilation of Mullaitivu base demonstrated the capability of the LTTE to concentrate and disperse. The corollary of this tactic is to force the security forces into a widespread defensive posture thus restricting the option of the security forces to maintain pressure against the LTTE by a co-ordinated mobile offensive.
In addition to the security forces having to respond to the changing operational pattern of the LTTE, they are also stymied by the need to deploy large manpower resources to secure and administer the extensive territorial gains made by re-capturing LTTE controlled areas in the peninsula and Kilinochchi. The widespread offensive by the LTTE also demands the widespread deployment of the security forces, especially to stem LTTE pressure to destabilise the eastern province, where a tri-communal population, any security set-back can create a disproportionate political backwash. The Government has necessarily to be sensitive to that aspect especially in view of the impending introduction of the devolution package.
That being the backdrop of the general ground situation, the Eelam War in the two years after Operations Riviresa, has slowed down to a stalemated war of attrition.
Though the situation is stalemated, the LTTE is yet able to retain considerable operational initiative. This is not an unnatural phenomenon in guerrilla-terrorist operation as it is they that determine the target and how, when and where to attack. The security forces in contrast by force of governance and public responsibilities are compelled to maintain security over large areas of real estate and state infrastructure.
Though the success of Riviresa/Sathjaya operations has ousted the LTTE from building up parallel state structure in the peninsula, they have been weakened militarily by maintaining pressure on them to keep them off balance, it is only by relentless mobile operations that the initiative could be wrested from the LTTE.
Now, the attack on Paranthan re-confirms the military potential of the LTTE. It also drives home the reality that conventional type of war designed to gain territory cannot by itself reduce the military capability of the LTTE. Whilst control of population and population centres is of political importance to the government, a more fluid strategy is essential to make the LTTE militarily ineffective.
This highlights the need for a revised strategy by the government, both political and military in content.
Politically the government must implement a fast track rehabilitation programme to facilitate the political and civil infrastructure of the north and east by indigenous management. The military should be relieved of civil administrative duties which they have been doing since Riviresa so that they will be free to focus on their operational responsibilities. These are the challenges facing the government.
Any delay to activate a revised, co-ordinated politico-military programme can only by default confer on the LTTE the prerogative of retaining the initiative and their capability for Mullaitivu-Kilinochchi type of offensives.
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