Situation Report

9th March 1997

Tiger triple jump in the Eastern theatre

By Iqbal Athas

For the first time since the so-called Eelam War III, Tiger guerrillas simultaneously took on three major targets in the east last Thursday - the main Sri Lanka Air Force base in China Bay in Trincomalee, the Vavunathivu Army Camp and the Headquarters of the Three Brigade, both in Batticaloa.

The offensives began under cover of darkness late Wednesday night and continued through dawn Thursday. When it ended, Tiger guerrillas left behind a trail of destruction and a grim reminder that they were not as weakened an enemy as they were perceived to be.

Doubts of LTTE capabilities, particularly by the defence establishment, grew after the little or no resistance the LTTE offered to "Operation Edibala" - the military offensive that linked Vavuniya with the western seaboard town of Mannar.

A weekly Sinhala newspaper two weeks ago described the offensive as a "peace march in the jungle" - a remark which underscored the smooth conduct of the operation without enemy resistance. Of course that was in the western flank of the theatre of conflict, a flank which has not witnessed any major attacks or bloody confrontations in the almost three years of "Eelam War III."

Last Thursday's LTTE actions made it clear that the lack of resistance to "Operation Edibala" was not because it was taken by surprise, but rather because the LTTE was not detracted to the western flank from its strategic focus on the east, at least for the present. A studied unconcern perhaps even though "Operation Edibala" seemed to be part of a larger strategy aimed at establishing MSRs (Main Supply Routes) to link up Vavuniya to Mannar on the one hand and on the other to link up Vavuniya to Kilinochchi thus connecting up the Jaffna peninsula.

Whether the latter option if executed will be a "peace march in the jungle" because of the strategic value of that route to the LTTE is quite another matter.

If the attack on the SLAF Base in China Bay caused a loss of more than Rs. 125 million with the Chinese-built Harbin Y12 aircraft being destroyed, the over-running of the Vavunativu Army Camp (which was later recaptured) led to the deaths of over 75 soldiers. More than 70 soldiers were wounded, some of them seriously. What is strongly believed to be artillery fire, fell on the Three Brigade Headquarters in Batticaloa killing two women soldiers and a Police Constable. Six Policemen were wounded.

The attack on the Sri Lanka Air Force Base at China Bay, a key defence installation came as midnight approached on Wednesday. Mortars began to rain on the complex from its north west end, the Kappalthurai side.

A group of around 15 guerrillas including suicide squads breached the perimeter fence and walked in firing 40mm grenades and spraying their assault rifles all round. At one point, the entry became easier when a sentry reportedly abandoned his bunker to go and alert a group of colleagues nearby. Guerrillas who had arrived at the tarmac began firing Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). One hit a Chinese built Y12 aircraft setting it alight. Hours later, only a charred, fully burnt out body and frame of the aircraft remained.

Attempts by Tiger guerrillas to enter the adjoining hangar to fire at another Harbin Y12 that remained parked there failed. Air Force personnel were offering resistance and a gun battle ensued. As this went on, more LTTE mortars fired from near a railway track was falling within the China Bay Air Force complex. Officials in the Operations Room radioed for help. Russian built Mi 24 helicopters which took off from Anuradhapura began strafing LTTE positions.

By the time Air Vice Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, Director (Operations) arrived from Colombo to take control of the situation, it was break of dawn. The drama had ended. Bodies of the three LTTE men lay on the tarmac.

Retaliatory fire by airmen had severed the head of one of the Tiger guerrillas. SLAF officials found he was wearing a Denim lined suicide bombers jacket. Army reinforcements sealed off the area and conducted a search of the scrub jungle around. The attackers had made a hasty retreat.

Vavunativu (or Buffalo) island lies south east of the main military airfield in the eastern provincial capital of Batticaloa. An Army base located here made up of troops from the Sixth Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment and a battalion of the National Guard, is tasked with the responsibility of providing security cover to the airfield.

Later, on Wednesday night, Tiger guerrillas blasted the Valairavu bridge - the only land route that linked the islet with mainland Batticaloa and simultaneously directed artillery/mortar fire on the Army Camp. (The bridge was partly damaged. Traffic has begun to move again whilst repair work is now underway).

Boatloads of Tiger guerrillas, which the Ministry of Defence claimed was 800 strong, made an assault landing on the Army camp. As hours went by, the camp was over-run. "The men put up stiff resistance before they were forced to make a tactical retreat," one Army official said.

On Thursday, the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence said in a news release,"The attack which came in waves were successfully repulsed by the troops inflicting heavy casualties on the terrorists. Ground troops confirmed that over 160 terrorists were killed and a large number injured." The press release added: "Forty eight bodies of own troops killed in action have been recovered. Troops are searching the area forward of the detachment."

In a news release on Friday, the MOD said, "Total of own troops killed is 65 including two officers and 35 injured. Terrorists have left behind a large number of weapons, one Canter truck and two tractors...."

But Friday evening, Sri Lankans who watched CNN or BBC television and heard foreign radio broadcasts learnt of an entirely different story. They were told that the Vavunativu camp was completely over-run and was re-captured by the troops on Thursday. Even Colombo based correspondents of international news agencies had filed the same report.

Perhaps for reasons better known to themselves, the Ministry of Defence, like during the LTTE attack of the Mullaitivu military base, chose to play down the incident. But it was an exercise in futility since Sri Lankans were learning of a major incident in their own country from foreign broadcasts. Even the Sinhala service of the BBC, the Sandesaya gave the details.

Not only that. Highly placed military officials I spoke to, said that after the camp was over-run, Tiger guerrillas removed a sizeable quantity of weapons from the Vavunativu Army camp - machine guns, assault rifles, ammunition and communications equipment.

Reinforcements to re-capture the Vavunativu Army Camp rushed in boats with SLAF air support. By Thursday afternoon they re-established control. Senior Military officials at the Joint Operations Headquarters said that the LTTE also suffered "heavy" casualties. However, it is difficult to independantly verify the Defence Ministry's claim of "200 deaths and over 120 injured."

A senior Army official in the east who spoke on grounds of anonymity said that the stiff resistance offered was because the troops had a forewarning from Military Intelligence, just two days before, of the possibility of the camp being attacked. It is, however, a matter of observation that in spite of the warning, the defence preparations were not stiff enough to forestall the camp from being over-run by the enemy in the face of which the Army made a "tactical retreat." Furthermore, that counter attack was not launched by reserve forces to deny and prevent the camp from being over-run shows clearly some deficiency in contingency plans particularly in view of intelligence warnings.

The LTTE has remained silent on the attack on Vavunativu. In its usual press release, the Tigers only made reference to the attack on the SLAF Base at China Bay and gave the names of its cadres who were killed. They were "Major Sittampalam, Captain Nivethan and Captain Vijayaruban".

As the attack on Vavunativu continued, Tiger guerrillas fired artillery/mortar at the Three Brigade Headquarters located in the Batticaloa town. Two women soldiers and a Police Constable were killed. Six more Policemen were injured. The Policemen had arrived at the Brigade Headquarters for a briefing on security related duties.

Military Intelligence officials confirm that the artillery fire aimed at the Two Brigade Headquarters and at Vavunativu was from artillery guns the LTTE seized after they attacked the Pulukunawa Special Task Force (STF) detachment early this year.

The simultaneous attack on three service establishments which included the massive SLAF Base in China Bay disproves the claimed theories that Operations Riviresa, Sathjaya and Edibala have weakened the LTTE. As if Mullaitivu did not earlier prove this fact.

The attack on the SLAF Base at China Bay raises several questions. The fact that the LTTE had infiltrated into the tarmac which is the core of the operational zone indicates that the outer perimeter and all positions in depth have been successfully penetrated. This is an unacceptable situation.

The fact that a Harbin Y 12 was destroyed is relative in terms of loss of money and hardware. But the more significant fact is that the enemy has infiltrated into a major and vital defence complex - Vital not only in itself, but also in its strategic role as the base for air-logistics and support in the conduct of the war. This is not the first time that a major air force base has been infiltrated in depth.

It was only a few years ago that the Palaly Air Base, which was equally of strategic importance, was also infiltrated. To the public mind a mass LTTE attack on isolated camps and bases is understandable as a fact of war. However, it is irreconcilable as to how a major and a strategically vital base could be infiltrated into such depths.

Defence measures of major establishments, especially containing such hi-tech military hardware critical to the support of the war have to be guarded against sabotage and infiltration. Logically that would be the tactic the enemy would adopt rather than attempt a conventional attack en masse on a major defence establishment.

The LTTE attack on Vavunativu Army Camp also demonstrates a military weakness that in spite of intelligence of an impending attack that the military was unable to prevent the camp being over-run with the consequent loss of lives and weaponry.

The fact that Vavunativu camp was established in the overall defence planning of the Batticaloa airfield could well mean that the LTTE is targeting the Air Force. The total air superiority enjoyed by the armed forces is a crippling disadvantage to the LTTE which has no real counter to it. Furthermore, any loss of aircraft not only reduces the logistics and air support to the forces, but also confers to the LTTE greater mobility free for observation and attack.

It is also of interest that the Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence confirms that the artillery fire on the Vavunativu Camp and Brigade Headquarters was also from artillery weapons seized from the Pulukunawa Camp of the Police Special Task Force (STF). If this is so, it manifestly demonstrates the ability of the LTTE to move men, heavy weapons and material in the eastern province freely. This seriously questions the effectiveness of the Government and the security forces control, or the lack of it, in a province which only two years ago was adequately under Government control for elections to be held.

This again questions the wisdom of the strategy of attaching lesser importance to the eastern province. One will not be over-stating the importance of the eastern province in the overall Eelam strategy. The Weli Oya basin is a strategically important gateway to the eastern province which has seen a bloody pogrom of ethnic cleansing of the unarmed Sinhala villages by the LTTE.

Trincomalee and its environs with its Air Force and Naval bases is the plum and the perceived capital of Eelam. The mixed population of the eastern province, the Muslims of which have faced the LTTE pogrom of ethnic cleansing, is territorially strategic and psychologically important.

Recent developments of LTTE infiltration into the Yala jungles in the deep south is additional reason to secure the eastern province to deny the Tigers space to expand their operations. The fact that the hill country with its large concentration of Tamil population of Indian origin is contiguous to the eastern province cannot be ignored.

Recent operations by the LTTE in the eastern province, including the capture of the Mullaitivu base, suggests that the serious focus of the Tigers is on the east. In contrast to this, the western Wanni including Mannar, is of secondary importance.

This has been historically so in the 14 years old war. To permit further deterioration of the situation in the east and its corridor to the North will not only escalate the magnitude of security threat but will also generate tensions which will exacerbate existing socio-ethnic and political differences at a national level. This will be sweet music to the Tigers.

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