The man who has run Sri Lanka's military machine against Tiger guerrillas for the past three years, Deputy Defence Minister, General Anuruddha Ratwatte, did not hide his feelings about "Operation Jaya Sikurui", when he was in the Wanni battlefront last week.
During a discussion with the military top brass in Vavuniya, he made it clear they needed to be "more aggressive". That is how they should be to re-capture Puliyankulam and proceed beyond to accomplish their mission.
In a bid to encourage them not to be deterred by the rain of artillery, and more importantly mortar fire, General Ratwatte cited the valiant efforts put up by troops during "Operation Riviresa." Furthermore, even he and military top brass had dodged 120 mm artillery fire when the Mullaitivu military base came under attack in July, last year. "Isn't that so Dalu ?", he asked from Lt. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte. The Army Commander nodded in concurrence.
The need to break through heavy LTTE resistance and go ahead without any further delay became apparent.
Overall Operations Commander (OOC), Major General Asoka Jayawardena, who has almost single handedly directed "Operation Jaya Sikurui" went into immediate action. He summoned General Officers Commanding Divisions in the north for a top level conference in Anuradhapura. Immediate measures to accelerate the offensive was the focus of the meeting.
Even as he did that, troops of the 55 Division, who were a kilometre south of Puliyankulam, began an advance in a westerly direction and later headed north. Their aim was to proceed beyond Puliyankulam, turn east and link up with troops of the 53 Division. They had advanced over five kilometres by Friday evening. The link up in effect would mean the encirclement of Puliyankulam.
On Friday Gen. Ratwatte and the security forces top brass flew to the frontlines to see the progress of the stepped up offensive. They reviewed the situation during lunch at the Navy's newly set up North Central Command at Vavuniya. Senior officials believed a satisfactory advance was being made.
Until yesterday, Tiger guerrillas were offering fierce resistance to troops on both flanks. Inter monsoonal rains that broke out have not been of much help to the troops. The muddy terrain has become difficult for the Main Battle Tanks to roll. They were getting bogged down.
Yet senior military officials were optimistic. Whilst some said Puliyankulam would be within their reach within a week, others were hopeful that an accelerated push could help them accomplish the aim of the operation - open the Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna - before the end of this month. Given their own optimism when the operation was launched on May 13, and confidently named "Operation Jaya Sikurui", (Victory Assured), only time will tell how realistic this would be.
As reported in these columns last week, after protracted battles to seize Puliyankulam, troops of the 53 Division skirted around and advanced in a north easterly direction by passing the strategic junction. Thereafter they turned in a westerly direction and arrived at A9, the main highway that links Vavuniya with Kilinochchi. They were holding a 500 metre stretch of the road. During this time, Tiger guerrillas launched a fierce counter attack, the first on troops of the 53 Division.
Last week, the ICRC handed over to the Army in Vavuniya the bodies of 17 soldiers who were killed in the counter attack. Since they were decomposed beyond recognition, the bodies were cremated within the premises of the Four Brigade headquarters in Vavuniya after a military ceremony. That included a gun salute followed by the last post.
"Operation Jaya Sikurui" is 131 days old today, easily the longest running military offensive in Sri Lanka's history. The death toll, over 630, has surpassed all other figures during military operations. So has the injured, a staggering near 3,500 although over a third are minor cases. An equally staggering factor has been the high cost, both in terms of expenditure and material losses. It is costing an estimated Rs 2.4 million per day for the operation.
Added to that are material losses - Ten Main Battle Tanks (including a Command Tank), a tracked armoured personnel carrier (BMP), an automatic grenade launcher, mortar ammunition, small arms, communications equipment, vehicles etc.
Since the push for Puliyankulam began on August 19, the vast number of casualties to troops have been from 81 mm mortar attacks. The LTTE is said to be using an average of 3,000 to 3,500 mortar bombs per day. On one particular occasion it had used as much as 5,000 mortar bombs. The LTTE is known to be in possession of over fifty mortar launchers including 15 captured when they attacked the Mullaitivu military base. They are said to be clustering seven to eight launchers together and firing heavy barrages in different directions.
Mortar Locating Devices, the piece of equipment meant to locate and enemy mortar positions for counter attack is the answer to this threat. Senior military officials have said there is a crying need for this equipment now. It is only then they can successfully neutralise or destroy enemy mortar positions, they say.
Ironically, as early as 1995, a total of 24 Mortar Locating Devices were purchased at a total cost of US dollars 15 million (or around Rs 870 million). Six months after their arrival, the devices packed up. A team from the Asian supplier arrived to examine the equipment but they were unable to repair them. Nor have they been replaced.
Once more, the question comes to the fore - how much of the billions of tax payer's money every year is really helping the war effort ? Procurement of unserviceable military hardware, placing orders for quantities far in excess of the required amounts and acquiring items which are obsolete for billions of rupees have become all too common a feature during the so-called Eelam War Three. They have been accompanied by serious allegations of corruption.
That was not the only poser set by 81 mm mortars. There was an equally disturbing fact. Military intelligence officials have acquired increasing evidence that the thousands of mortars that have been fired are part of the 32,400 rounds (81 mm) ordered by the Government of Sri Lanka from the state owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI).
They have confirmed through intelligence channels that the LTTE inveigled ZDI into parting with the military cargo to one of its own cargo ships.
Thereafter the mortar bombs in 12 containers had been moved to an Asian country. Intelligence officials now have reports that part of the consignment has been smuggled into the Wanni in small quantities. The fact has been further confirmed by Tiger cadres who were captured and interrogated. According to one of them, there has been three separate shipments.
At the request of both the Governments of Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, the Interpol is continuing their investigations. In Zimbabwe, the task has gone to Interpol's Regional Office for Africa, located in the capital Harare.
The loss of the 32,400 mortar bombs (81 mm) has become an acute embarrassment to the Zimbabwean Government. It has not only lost or "virtually donated" the lethal cargo to the LTTE but has also suffered a financial loss of over US dollars 2,592,000.
The Chief Executive of Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI), Tshinga Dube, has told reporters in Harare that he has been instructed by his superiors not to speak to the media about the incident. Harare's Police Commissioner, Augustine Chihuri warned that if anyone in the Police force gave information about this case, he would punish them. He urged reporters to quote him on that statement
Yet Zimbabwean newspapers, quoting military sources in Harare and Colombo, reported that ZDI could have been conned by the LTTE into loading the consignment onto a ship owned by them. A leading news agency Agence France Press (AFP) moved the Zimbabwean news report in its international wire. BBC's Harare Correspondent, Alan Mills, also reported on it for the radio.
The Government of Sri Lanka placed the order for the 32,400 mortar bombs in February, this year. This followed a visit to Colombo by Tshinga Dube, Chief Executive of the Zimbabwean Defence Industries (ZDI).
According to Defence Ministry officials in Colombo, the agreed price was US dollars 80 (or Rs 4640) each for a mortar shell CIF Colombo. That meant payment for the consignment was to be made after the military cargo reached Colombo.
One official said ZDI had problems in coping with the order. They had on at least two separate occasions (between March and June) sought extension of the delivery dates. "During that period, we learnt that ZDI had made unsuccessful attempts to obtain quantities of 81 mm mortars from manufacturers in Bulgaria and China in a bid to execute our order ," the official said.
He said they had later confirmed that the consignment had been moved by road from Harare to Mozambique and shipped from the port of Beira on Stillus Limmasul, a vessel whose name is now known to be fictitious.
Confirmation that this vessel left with the military cargo came during a meeting Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Daluwatte, had with Douglas Mrewa, Secretary of the ZDI. It took place at the Commander's Office in early August.
Mr. Mrewa came to Colombo to brief the Government on the execution of the order by the ZDI. This was after the Ministry of Defence made representations that the military cargo in question had not arrived, many weeks after its due date.
Details of the missing ship was exclusively reported in SITUATION REPORT of July 20.
Another factor that affected the conduct of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" was the inability of the Sri Lanka Air Force to provide the required volume of close air support and other assistance, including casualty evacuation - a matter on which Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Daluwatte received repeated complaints from his field commanders.
Besides the limited supporting role for the ongoing operation, the SLAF's role in the movement of troops to the north has virtually ceased with its only Antonov 32 completing its allotted flying hours before an overhaul. The only SLAF transport aircraft operating to the north once daily is the recently refitted Chinese built Shaanxi Y-8.
There is only one high ranking SLAF officer who is based in Katunayake on other official responsibilities who is authorised to be in command of Y 8 flights from Ratmalana to Palaly. A Harbin Y 12 aircraft leaves every day to Katunayake to bring him to Ratmalana for the flight and thereafter drop him there. The Y8 operates only cargo flights since it is not pressurised to carry passengers. Last Sunday it flew back from Palaly with an empty cabin but with five soldiers in its pressurised escort cabin.
A private operator running a fleet of AN 24 aircraft has complied with a Ministry of Defence request to continue operations though their contractual obligations ended two weeks ago. However, the backlog of soldiers wanting to come on leave and others wanting to return from Ratmalana are said to be high.
A group of local journalists who were taken on a conducted tour of Jaffna recently were mobbed by stranded soldiers at Palaly. They urged that they write about the plight they were going through in view of the SLAF's inability to provide transport like in the past years. They say after the string of aircraft losses, SLAF top brass should have anticipated the problems they would face.
Some senior Army officials say they have been besieged with requests from these soldiers for transfers to Vavuniya. Others fear such problems drive soldiers to desert their positions. "Once they go home, the next of kin who have been waiting do not allow them to return," said one official. He lamented that no remedial action has been taken so far.
The entire planning of the security operation in the northern province and the reconstruction/rehabilitation programme of the peninsula was based on the sustenance of military and civilian logistics by sea and air. The airlift being more expensive was naturally restricted to emergency and priority requirements. The ability to sustain such a logistics programme gave the Government the cutting edge in its operational strategy so far as the peninsula was concerned.
The inability of the SLAF to continue to contribute to the logistics plan with air transport now puts a spanner in the works.
The Government is compelled to heavily rely on the maritime option backed by whatever support it could obtain from a private airline operator flown by a combination of local and foreign pilots.
The onset of the north east monsoon is bound to pose difficulties to the maritime supply programme. The threat to shipping off the east coast by the LTTE, though it has always prevailed, now poses an exacerbated threat.
Given the traditional expertise of the Sea Tigers, the monsoonal conditions are not unfamiliar to them, and, could afford them the advantage of some operational freedom against technically superior naval craft.
Thus the next few months are bound to be crucial to the government. That "Operation Jaya Sikurui" has still not progressed beyond the half way mark, with only a month's pre monsoonal weather remaining, cannot give the Government much comfort in planning its operational and logistics options.
The Government has placed heavy reliance on the success of "Operation Jaya Sikurui." The continuing attrition of that operation and the many factors which have contributed to the inability of the planners to overcome the flagging inertia must be of both military and political concern. The latter, more so in the face of the totality of difficulties the Government is faced with at the macro level of security related planning.
The Government depends in no small measure to a successful run up to a referendum on the devolution proposals as a major measure to diffuse the ethnic issues which could lead to a peace dividend. The success of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" which is made out as a knock out blow to re-stabilise the northern province has been an essential prop for the devolution campaign. There is no denying that a military success would greatly assist to swing public opinion in favour of the Government.
After all, everyone is tired of the 16 year old separatist war and a light at the end of the barrel will be welcome relief. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be so.
Whilst operations in the northern theatre remain in suspended animation, the situation in the Eastern province does not provide any relief either. In fact it would appear that the situation has worsened or threatens to do so.
As to who is calling the shots on the ground situation in the eastern province is an open question. The recent "Cordiality" incident, coming in the wake of Mo Ran Bong, accompanied by the LTTE threat to ships, transporting what they claim to be the resources of Eelam, clearly underscores the fact that the LTTE are opening their strategic options to pressurise the Government in as many fronts as possible. The expansion of the LTTE land operations to the Yala National Park is not out of concert with such planning.
The threat to Yala cannot be dismissed lightly. First and foremost, Yala is out of the contiguous territory which the LTTE claim as their homeland. Thus, they have ventured out of their claimed " territory". The threat to Yala cannot be simplified as a mere disturbance to the tourist industry, though it is a setback considering that Wilpattu is also out of bounds.
The more potent danger of Yala is perhaps that it is immediately adjacent to the southern area development zones.
Whether this would deter investor confidence is yet to be seen. What with the projects planned for Hambantota, Kirinda and Bundala ? The expanse of Yala jungles has been hitherto a buffer between the LTTE aspirations in the east and the belt of Sinhala and Muslim villages of Kirinda, Hambantota, Tissamaharama, Wellawaya through to Moneragala. Now with the LTTE incursion to Yala, will it give rise to another sensitive border ?
Some sections of the Government claim that the Yala episode is not LTTE related. If that is so, it perhaps poses a more dangerous threat of an emerging third force a la 1971 and 1987/89 or else to claim that this episode could be even otherwise a matter related to a departmental quarrel is the least to say, food for consumption by the half witted.
The inaccessibility of Yala is also attractive for arms smuggling. That the Eastern province is in a destabilised state makes any transportation of military hardware smuggled through Yala that much easier.
In sum, the threat to the eastern province and Yala, apart from its own intrinsic factors also means that more troops would be required to sustain effective security in this area. Hence, at the expense of "Operation Jaya Sikurui."
The discovery of the arms cache in Ratmalana further elucidates the strategy of the LTTE. This is an understandable strategy as the Tigers have not the men, material, organisation or the capability to halt the "Operation Jaya Sikurui" advance.
They can only at best make the Main Supply Route to Jaffna non viable even if "Operation Jaya Sikurui" accomplishes its fuller aim. Whether it would be done before the monsoon is in question. Whether it will be done in time for the political agenda of the Government, the two scheduled events in November - the budget and the introduction of the devolution proposals in Parliament - is also in question.
That "Operation Jaya Sikurui" will go through finally is not unlikely with the organisational and equipment superiority of the security forces. But whether it should do so before the Government completes its fourth year in office is a question which is politically relevant.
Even if that should materialise, Government is left with the leverage of just one free year before it enters into the sixth year, the year of elections.
Little wonder that, with the kettle of problems, it is a burning desire of the Government to win "Operation Jaya Sikurui" as fast as possible: costs not mentioned ?
Perhaps this accounts for the braggadocio of the political establishment with regard to an "Operation Jaya Sikurui" victory this year. Hopefully the imperative for political exigency would not be at the cost of sound military planning and good judgement.
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