Situation Report

15th June 1997

Thandikulam's thundering Tuesday

By Iqbal Athas

After fighting their way through for three long days, troops advancing on the main flanks of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured) took a break last Monday.

Both the 55 Division, which moved astride the A 9 axis, the one time Vavuniya-Jaffna highway, and the 53 Division south eastwards from Nedunkerny, were on the doorstep of Puliyankulam.

Whilst the troops took up defensive positions to take a well earned rest, their respective field commanders were busy making plans for one of the most important events - the link-up at Puliyankulam. The occasion, a significant milestone in the 15 1/2-year-old separatist war, was to take place last week.

But unknown to them, from his hide-out somewhere in the jungles of Nedunkerny, LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was busy making other plans that were to delay the link-up. He ordered his confidant Karuna (the Batticaloa military wing leader) to launch a counter offensive.

That Monday whilst "Jaya Sikurui" troops were taking a well earned rest, Karuna and his men trekked through the jungles and pathways (west of the Vavuniya-Jaffna highway) towards Thandikulam. The move of some 600 heavily armed LTTE cadres, both young men and women, who towed artillery guns took even the intelligence community by total surprise. The arsenal that moved with them included Rocket Propelled Grenades, their improvised Arul Grenades, Machine Guns and double cabs mounted with Fifty Calibre (Point Five Zero) guns.

Located five kilometres north of the Vavuniya town, Thandikulam until May 13, (when "Operation Jaya Sikurui" was launched) was where, in a paradoxical sense, the writ of the Government ended and the rule of the LTTE began. An Army-Police Checkpoint unfolded the human drama of those caught up in the separatist war.

For the civilians in the Wanni, the perilous journey from guerrrilla - controlled territory either began or ended here depending on whether they entered or left Vavuniya. Those entering Vavuniya from the Wanni passed through the Nochchimodai barrier (crossing the Army built steel bridge at Kokeliya) to be cleared at this check-point.

Similarly those heading for the Wanni were cleared at Thandikulam and transported by buses to cross Nochchimodai, the last point that was under security forces control. This changed when troops of the 55 Division broke out from Nochchimodai on May 13 to launch "Operation Jaya Sikurui". Their advance further extended the northern defences of Vavuniya.

Vavuniya, 158 miles north of Colombo, is the gateway to the northern province and the key town that services the needs of civilians in the Wanni stretching from Mannar in the West to Mullaitivu in the east.

As night fell on Monday, men at the 55 Division Headquarters at Thandikulam, mostly from the Artillery, Signals Corps and a few from Military Intelligence, sat down for a hot meal. Radio traffic on the communication sets at the Division Headquarters were mostly routine and less tense since the troops in the battlefield were resting.

When the night grew, in marked contrast to the burst of shells and crackle of gunfire that rendered the air when "Operation Jaya Sikurui" began, there was unusual calm not only in Thandikulam but also in Vavuniya. Hours ticked by and Tuesday dawned.

Around 2.10 am, loud explosions rendered the air. Artillery shells began to rain on Vavuniya town and its environs. Some landed on the Sri Lanka Air Force Base whilst others fell at the adjoining Headquarters of Task Force Two. Yet others fell on civilian homes killing six of them instantly and wounding 35..

Platoons assigned for standby security tasks took up position at the two main security forces bases whilst troops who were in the billets, who were woken up by the shelling, rushed to don their uniforms, ammunition pouches, clasp their weapons and take defensive cover.

It was just over three weeks ago that residents of Vavuniya breathed a sigh of relief. The advance of the 55 Division past Omanthai had put Vavuniya beyond artillery range. Shells falling on Vavuniya would be a thing of the past, or so they thought. Life had just begun to become a little more relaxed and night life in the town area registered increased activity. And suddenly they were thrust from their beds by the loud explosions that caused tremors in their homes. They wondered what had gone wrong. Within minutes the news was out that the Tigers were firing artillery barrages. Men, women and children ran for cover in panic.

The excruciating pain, the injuries caused by falling artillery shells was too much for some. So much so their next of kin were forced to brave threats to their own lives and rush them to hospital. That meant having to cross the streets where troops with their hands on the triggers of their weapons had taken up position fearing an enemy advance.

As the panic and mayhem caused by the artillery fire on Vavuniya continued, Tiger guerrillas stormed the forward defended localities manned by the Army, west of Thandikulam, at three different points from Thandikulam to Kokkeliya, a distance of three kilometres. The invading groups appeared not only to be conversant with the terrain but had their targets clearly set out. They fired their way through, taking advantage of the artillery and mortar fire their colleagues directed from a distance outside the defended localities. Some of the shells landed way ahead. One hit the sector manned by the Navy killing one sailor and injuring six.

A large group attacked the 55 Division Headquarters, the surrounding camps and parking areas. They fired Rocket Propelled Grenades at the tanks, Armoured Personnel Carriers, tank trailers, ambulances and other vehicles. Another went for the Artillery battery and containers loaded with artillery shells. Mortars rained. One fell on an ammunition dump creating secondary explosions that shook the area.

A group of Tiger guerrillas who infiltrated at the furthest end sped their way towards the Kokeliya bridge and blasted it with explosives. A full scale battle broke out. As the headline of this column declared last week (TIGERS EYE THE TAIL), LTTE's counter offensive to "Operation Jaya Sikurui" was to hit at the rear.

Four hours of pitched gun battles saw dawn Tuesday. As the rays of the sun began enveloping the area, the LTTE had taken control between Thandikulam and Nochchimodai, a stretch of three kilometres. It was to remain in their hands for that whole day. With that, they had effectively cut off the 55 Division.

Having done that, Karuna, his men and women continued to unleash a trail of terror and destruction. As the day grew, intense fighting continued. Re-inforcements rushed from the security forces camps in Vavuniya but met with stiff resistance. The Sri Lanka Air Force scrambled its MI 24 Hind helicopter gunships to strafe LTTE positions. One of them was hit by small arms fire forcing the pilot to fly low and make an emergency landing at the Vavuniya airfield. It was later repaired.

By noon Tuesday, troops were still battling to break through Thandikulam. They resisted heavy gun fire to advance a little distance but were engaged by Tiger sniper fire. Senior military officials decided to induct special forces personnel who were with the 53 Division (advancing from Nedunkerny in a south easterly direction to link up with 55 Division at Puliyankulam).

MI 17 transport helicopters flew sorties to bring in the commandos to Thandikulam. Whilst they fought their way through, Brigadier Shantha Kottegoda, GOC, 55 Division and a group of his men had arrived at the northern end of Nochchimodai. Their advance was also being impeded by heavy artillery fire. Talking on the radio to senior officials, Brigadier Kottegoda, emphasised the need to break the siege without losing time.

It was well past 8 p.m. on Tuesday night when the commandos backed by other troops fought their way through ousting the Tigers and thus linked up Thandikulam with Nochchimodai. It was night and the tale of the LTTE counter attack was still clothed in darkness. First light on Wednesday morning was to reveal the trail of losses, both men and material.

The search for the dead and the wounded began as more troops were poured in to consolidate positions. Troops on rescue tasks began picking up dead bodies of their colleagues that lay strewn in various spots. There were also the injured who were writhing in pain. They were promptly rushed to the hospital. In some areas, troops also found stray LTTE dead bodies.

By Wednesday night a grim picture emerged. A staggering 180 soldiers were killed and 27 more were missing in action (MIA). Military officials fear that those declared missing may also be dead thus bringing the death toll to 207. More than 320 soldiers have been wounded in action. Of this number, over 90 have been classed as P 1 (as the category severely injured), more than 100 P2 (less severely injured ) and the rest P3 ( or those who are described as "walking wounded").

Both the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence as well as the LTTE has been making claims and counter claims over casualties, both during the conduct of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" as well as during the counter attack. Detailed verification of these claims have become difficult since the media is banned from the battle areas and there are no communications.

Besides the loss of huge quantities of artillery shells, assorted ammunition, two Main Battle Tanks and two artillery guns have been wrecked. Ambulances and a fleet of vehilces have been damaged. Two 25 pounder guns also have been damaged. The real extent of the damage will be known only after a Court of Inquiry probes the incident. But senior military officials estimate the losses to exceed Rs 200 million.

As repeatedly mentioned in these columns, casualties to troops during "Operation Jaya Sikurui" has been unusually high. Whilst these figures remain a secret, the situation has been further compounded by the casualties during the counter attack.

The LTTE's Secretariat in London said in a news release on Friday that 80 of its cadres had been killed in the counter attack. It said 21 of them were women. Intelligence sources, however, claim it is over 120.

Troops are now busy further consolidating their defences before re-commencing the advance. If the security forces were planning to link up and advance a reasonable distance to secure their positions before assessing their next move, this week's counter attack has further contributed towards this thinking. Hence it is expected to be a few months when the fuller aims of the ongoing operations are executed.

Whilst offering resistance to "Operation Jaya Sikurui", the LTTE has also embarked on a well planned campaign to destabilise the Trincomalee district. Besides the security forces and the Police, it has focused attention on economic targets.

It was only on May 29 the LTTE placed an explosive charge that badly damaged the hull of the Greek cargo vessel "Athena". It lay at Back Bay (outer harbour) at Trincomalee awaiting to unload ten million US dollars worth of wheat for the Prima Flour Milling complex. The explosion ripped a hole in the vessel's flooded the ship's engine room and cut off its power supply.

On Thursday, the LTTE wrecked the new digital telephone exchange and tower at Nilaweli. The damage is estimated to be over Rs 25 million.

Threats to merchant shipping in the seas off Trincomalee was the subject of a top level conference at the Ministry of Defence last Friday chaired by Additional Secretary, Mahinda Bandusena.

Besides the Prima Flour Mill, the Tokyo Cement Company, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation are among those who regularly use the Trincomalee Port. Security considerations have compelled the authorities to deny anchoring facilities in the inner harbour. Weighing anchor several miles away from the port has become difficult in view of the deep seas.

Hence it has been decided that merchant vessels destined to Trincomalee will be called upon to weigh anchor at Galle until their unloading schedules are finalised. From Galle, they will be called upon to make the nine hour journey to Trincomalee.

Additional Defence Secretary, Mr Bandusena also heard complaints of another serious development in Trincomalee. Lorry drivers travelling to Trincomalee to transport cement (from Tokyo Cement) and flour (from Prima) have gone on strike from Wednesday.

One of their main complaints is that some of the lorries were being "requisitioned" by persons in uniform when they are on their way to Trincomalee. The drivers were being called upon to sign payment vouchers. Although the lorries have been retained for periods of two and three weeks, they allege that they have not been paid any money. Some drivers have claimed that the lorries were run for what they believed were personal errands. The strike continues. Mr Bandusena has assured that he would take up the matter with the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army.

The loss of 20 Sri Lanka Air Force aircraft during the so called Eelam War Three has also had its own effects on the ongoing operation. The figure rose to 21 yesterday with the crash of the only SiAi Marchetti trainer. The Ministry of Defence was last week forced to hurriedly secure the services of another private operator to transport troops to the north. The operator has made available a non-pressurised AN 9 used for cargo transport. Some soldiers who took the flights fainted in mid air and had to be attended to by their colleagues. This is not the fault of the private operator or the Ministry itself. Exigencies of the situation has forced the use of the aircraft.

This is whilst the Ministry of Defence has frozen fresh procurements by the Sri Lanka Air Force.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has appointed a top level Committee of Inquiry to probe the workings of the SLAF.

The Committee is headed by Defence Secretary, Chandrananda de Silva and comprises General Denis Perera (a former Army Commander), Air Vice Marshal Pathman (Paddy) Mendis (a former Air Force Commander), Cyril Herath (a former Inspector General of Police) and C.R. de Silva, Deputy Solicitor General.

The Committee will probe why such a high number of SLAF aircraft have crashed, how many died and who is responsible. The suitability of these aircraft for the missions they were deployed, how they were procured and many other matters are also being gone into by the Committee. The probe relates to acquisitions and crashes that occurred after May, 1995.

I understand that Defence Secretary, Mr. de Silva, visited foreign capitals recently to examine some of the major procurements.

The Committee has already commenced sittings. It has been called upon to give its report early.

This column has repeatedly highlighted the losses suffered by the SLAF, the debacles it has faced and the alleged irregularities involved in procurements.

Top SLAF officials have compiled a file of newspaper accounts containing these exposures. The bulk of them are made up of clippings of SITUATION REPORT and efforts are now being made to track down SLAF personnel suspected of leaking information. This is despite a top level Committee being named by none other than President Kumaratunga, the Commander-in-Chief to investigate, among other matters, the exposures made.

An influential section of the Government feel that allegations of corruption and malpractice in military procurements should be probed and those responsible dealt with. This is in view of the colossal amounts of public funds being spent on the war effort. Reports of some top officials acquiring property or sending their children to some of the most expensive universities in Europe have been rampant in the past week.

The LTTE counter attack in the Thandikulam - Nochchimodai sector is a significant blow to the hitherto unchecked advance of troops on "Operation Jaya Sikurui".

I pointed out last week that the most likely option for Tiger leader Prabhakaran was to hit the tail of the advance so as to impose delay and maximum casualty to men and equipment. I also pointed out that it is unlikely that the LTTE could maintain a breach for any length of time in the absence of adequate resources.

The shortage of human resources for the LTTE must severely handicap their options. The large number of women cadres that have been launched into combat at this operation as well as the attack on the Mullaitivu military base last July indicates the manpower dilemma the LTTE faces.

If the LTTE is to continue the war into next year, which is just two years before the next Parliamentary elections, the LTTE would strive to delay the Vavuniya-Kilinochchi link up. If they can delay the advance till the monsoons, Prabhakaran would have done well.

In the meantime "Operation Jaya Sikurui" will have to slow down to the extent required to consolidate its position in the line of communication to rear.

The higher defence planners are obviously trying to consolidate on the free run of equipment procurement that has taken place in the past three years. It is to be expected that in such a situation corruption would have occurred.

It has happened in other parts of the world, including neighbouring India and Pakistan. But fruitful investigations have not only exposed the rackets but also brought to book the corrupt, however high their positions were. One can only hope Sri Lanka will not be an exception.

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