Situation Report

07th December 1997

Worst-ever commando debacle

By Iqbal Athas

What might have been the final phase of 'Operation Jaya Sikurui' or Victory Assured began last Thursday.

Troops broke out from their defensive positions at Puthur (north west of Puliyankulam) at dawn Thursday from both sides of A9, the main Kandy-Jaffna highway. They advanced towards Kanakarayankulam (south of Kilinochchi) under cover of heavy artillery barrages and limited close air support. With heavy rains muddying the area, their movement was severely impeded. Still they went ahead.

Barely 24 hours after General Anuruddha Ratwatte, Deputy Minister of Defence, who is personally directing the war machine against the Tiger guerrillas had briefed top brass of the Joint Operations Headquarters in Vavuniya, what was awaited in earnest had got under way. Men of the 53 Division led by Brigadier Vasantha Perera and his deputy, Brigadier Gamini Hettiaratchi, were directing the men to fight their way on the west and eastern flanks of A 9.

For over three hours troops overcame sporadic enemy resistance. Along their route of advance towards Mankulam, they were to neutralise three LTTE concentrations. These were said to be fortified bases with artillery or mortar positions. Commandos followed by infantry units who were given the task had moved deep into the area. If they were to overcome these positions and advance to Mankulam, their next move was to Kilinochchi thus accomplishing the aim of 'Operation Jaya Sikurui.' But that was not to be.

It was past 8 am that gloomy Thursday when all hell broke loose. The LTTE launched a fierce counter attack - Operation Do or Die Six. At least 147 soldiers, mostly commandos were killed and 22 reported missing in action. A further 396 who were injured have been admitted to hospitals in Anuradhapura and Colombo.

Even two days after the incident, the Joint Operations Headquarters high command were still piecing together the fuller details of what happened. The first news that the commandos have suffered their worst ever casualties reached the Regiment's Headquarters in Ganemulla by late Thursday. However, by Friday morning, most of the statistics of the havoc wreaked by LTTE's counter attack had reached the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence. By then, an officer and 35 men were known killed in action, 158 missing and over 320 injured. Of the missing number 24 returned to their base by Friday night.

But the Op Hq chose to be cautious in releasing the details early Friday. That morning, Parliament was taking up the votes of the Ministry of Defence during the Committee stage of the budget debate. That was to be followed by a debate on the extension of the State of Emergency. Government leaders felt the details, if released that morning, would be ammunition for the opposition during the debate.

Hence the Operational Headquarters came out with a carefully worded news release on Friday morning. It said:

'Troops having advanced further from their earlier held positions confronted a large group of terrorists close to the Vavuniya- Mankulam road around 8.30 am on 04 December, 1997.

"Troops overcame heavy enemy resistance causing heavy casualties among them. Terrorists continued to engage troops with mortars and artillery. Troops retaliated with artillery and mortars.

"Ground troops confirmed terrorists have suffered heavy casualties. The details of own casualties will be released later. Those injured have been evacuated to Anuradhapura Hospital. Troops are now in the process of clearing the area.

"Troops continue to carry out offensive patrolling and small group operations in forward areas."

It was at least three hours after Parliament sittings ended that the Op Hq gave the details that highlighted the seriousness of the situation. In a news release on Friday night which did not reach some sections of the media due to a prolonged country-wide power blackout, the Op Hq press release said:

"On December 4, 1997, terrorists engaged troops from well prepared defences when troops were approaching identified terrorist concentrations. Troops supported by artillery retaliated causing heavy casualties among the terrorists. Fighting was at close quarters and intense. Fighting which broke out at around 9 a.m. continued till late afternoon.

"Ground troops confirm that a very large number of terrorists were killed and injured. So far terrorist transmissions have revealed the names of 102 terrorists killed. The bodies of 36 soldiers including one officer killed have been handed over to their families.

"Although there was intimation by the ICRC that some of the bodies of soldiers were to be handed over, this has not taken place upto now. Troops at present are in control of the newly captured areas. The operation continues."

As usual, the LTTE gave a higher casualty toll for the security forces. A press release from its 'International Secretariat' in London claimed 300 troops were killed when the Army "attempted to advance on two fronts from Puthur towards Mannankkulam, Kanakarayankulam."

It said there was "heavy fighting between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE from early morning till 3.00 p.m. in the evening." The press release added that 133 bodies of soldiers were "recovered by the LTTE and out of these the 113 which were in good condition were handed over to the ICRC. The remaining 20 bodies which were in bad condition were cremated by the LTTE."

The LTTE also claimed that 35 of its cadres including ten women died in the incident. An official at the Joint Operations Headquarters in Vavuniya dismissed the claim and said "the Tiger toll was much higher" but was unable to place a figure.

LTTE's Operation Do or Die Six came just two days after Tiger guerrillas attacked an Army bus near Murunkan on the Vavuniya Mannar Road. In this incident last Tuesday, nine soldiers including two women who were travelling in an Army welfare bus were killed. It was only in February, this year, security forces re-captured the Vavuniya- Mannar highway during the unopposed 'Operation Edibala.'

The LTTE claimed that this attack was in rememberance" of the deaths of two of its cadres - 'Captain' Elilrasan and 'Captain' Nithi at Murunkan on November 30.

Besides the body of an officer and 35 soldiers which were in security forces hands after the incident, ICRC officials yesterday handed over the bodies of 110 commandos to military officials.

A military team headed by Major General Asoka Silva, General Officer Commanding the army's 53 Division took charge of the body after officers of the Commando Regiment who were armed with lists identified them. The take over of the bodies took place in an abandoned coconut plantation near Omanthai.

The bodies had been transported in four trucks from Mallawi to Uyilankulam and thereafter to Madhu before it was taken for the identification ceremony.

Military officials who transported coffins to the area placed the bodies inside and sealed them. They were despatched last night to the next of kin.

According to statistics available at the Joint Operations Headquarters in Vavuniya, a total of 158 soldiers and officers were missing in action. Of this number 24 had returned. With only 110 bodies handed over by the ICRC, the fate of 48 is yet to be accounted for. Unless there is word about their fate, they will remain classed as Missing in Action. The total number of soldiers killed so far, from the known statistics (110 bodies handed over by the ICRC and 36 bodies already handed over to their relatives) totals 147.

With Thursday's LTTE counter attack, the security forces death toll in the seven month long "Operation Jaya Sikurui" now surpasses the 1,000 mark. The number injured exceeds 5,000 although the majority of the cases were of a minor nature.

The LTTE has not made public its total list of casualties since the ongoing military operation began on May 13. A military report containing statistics upto September 4 contains three separate accounts of LTTE casualties - (a) ground troops estimate 858 killed (b) Estimate 1305 killed (c) transmissions 515 killed. A further 59 Tiger cadres had been killed in Puliyankulam during the same period by snipers. The report also said 1469 Tiger guerrillas were injured until September 4. (Situation Report November 23)

Independent verification of casualties is diffcult since the media has been banned from visiting battle areas for the past three years.

The declared aim of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" is to open a land based main supply route to the Jaffna peninsula. Troops are fighting to re-capture an extent of 74 kilometres of the A 9, the main highway from Kandy to Jaffna. Although troops have extended themselves on the eastern flank on a defence line stretching up to Karuppadimurippu (on the Mankulam-Mullaitivu Road), an extent of over 20 kilometres on the A9 still remains to be re-captured.

Government leaders have become increasingly concerned about an early completion of "Operation Jaya Sikurui." So much so General Ratwatte has told JOH top brass that he expects the operation to be completed by December 31.

It is not only the impending presentation in Parliament of the Government's devolution proposals and the upcoming 50th anniversary of independence that have necessitated an early and successful completion of the ongoing operation. There is now the impending local Government elections.

The Government announced on Wednesday that nominations for Municipal Council, Urban Council and Pradeshiya Sabha in the Jaffna and a Pradeshiya Sabha in the Kilinochchi district will be held on December 23. There are also a number of other important factors. Government leaders believe that the opening of a land based main supply route would drastically reduce the cost of the 16 year old separatist war. At present, with the eastern seas turning choppy thus restricting Naval movements, the only major means of supplying the north is by air.

A fledgling Sri Lanka Air Force is finding it difficulty to cope up with this task. From last week, over 2,000 soldiers destined for Palaly are stranded at the Ratmalana air base. The men who were returning after leave are unable to board flights to Palaly. The SLAF has grounded even the limited flights on grounds of bad weather. However, Lionair, a private operator was continuing its flights. Commenting on this, a senior SLAF official said "they are taking a risk. But we cannot expose ourselves to that risk." As a result, a large number of soldiers who are waiting to go on leave are also held up in Palaly.

Today is the 208th day since "Operation Jaya Sikurui" was launched. There has been six counter attacks so far. They are:

October 10 - Do or Die One - 180 soldiers were killed in action, 27 declared missing and 320 wounded.

June 24 - Do or Die Two - Attack on Omanthai - Rampaikulam defences. 75 soldiers killed and 201 wounded (Situation Report June 29).

August 1 - Do or Die Three - Attack on western defences between Omanthai and Puliyankulam. 70 security forces personnel including Policemen were killed.

September 30 - Do or Die Four - Attacks on security forces positions at Karuppakuththi, north east of Puliyankulam. 48 solders killed, 20 missing in action and 308 wounded.

October 6 - Do or Die Five - Attack on Karuppadimurippu (near Oddusuddan on the Mankulam - Mullaitivu Road) Vingnanakulam (north east of Kanakarayankulam). LTTE seized a massive haul of arms, ammunition during this attack. They also seized the air conditioned mobile command vehicle of officiating GOC of 53 Division, Brigadier Vasantha Perera. 30 soldiers were killed in action and 42 wounded.

All these attacks on the security forces came when troops were on defensive posture. However, Operation Do or Die Six, was staged when troops began their advance from Puthur towards Mankulam. The move prompted the troops to make a tactical withdrawl from areas they entered on Thursday.

The seven month old 'Operation Jaya Sikurui', the longest ever military offensive by the Sri Lankan security forces, has proved to be most expensive in terms of human and equipment losses. Whether the forces took this into consideration in forecasting the casualty rate for this operation is questionable. At least, it would appear so judging from the several predictions made by Deputy Defence Minister, General Anuruddha Ratwatte that this operation and the war would be concluded early. He declared last week that 92 per cent of the war had in fact been concluded.

The time frame given to military leaders executing 'Operation Jaya Sikurui,' it is well known, has been put off on several occasions and there still appears to be no political or military end in sight. High ranking military officials who are professionally competent say it would take two to three years to end the separatist war. That time table certainly surpases the current term of office of the PA Government. It would thus be apparent there is a clear conflict of thought between the political and military calculations.

If that was to be so in the higher echelons of thinking, the difference of opinion at the lower level also appears to bear a contradiction between military and political time tables. In fact in the military is that over a period of Operation Jaya Sikurui,' some command changes were the result of conflicting opinions on operational matters.

Whilst the operation was under way, then Overall Operations Commander, Major General Asoka Jayawardena was named as Commandant, Sri Lanka Army Volunteer Force whilst Major General Srilal Weerasuriya, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army succeeded him.

The fact that the war is political in content is not in dispute. However, it is axiomatic that the military strategy which is the extension of political aims should be in balance with the totality of national strategy. In other words, both should be harmonised with priority being given to strategic importance.

The most recent time table on 'Operation Jaya Sikurui' is that it will be ended by December 31 - three weeks away from now. Looking at it from hindsight of the past six months in which the security forces have secured approximately 50 kilometres of the A9, it seems unlikely that the balance of some 24 kilometres - 50 per cent of what has so far been achieved - could be completed in just three weeks. Particularly so considering the monsoon conditions which will greatly restrict ground operations.

Hence the declaration of terminating the war this year appears to be totally timed for the political programme of the devolution package, 50 years of freedom celebrations and now the local polls in Jaffna and Kilinochchi districts.

The political programmes are aimed at marginalising the LTTE politically. It will only be through a process of politically marginalising the LTTE that any headway can be made. The LTTE has stubbornly rejected the devolution package.

The LTTE will and has to resist both military and political excursions in to Jaffna. More so when they have lost control of the Jaffna peninsula where they ran a virtual parallel administrtion for a decade before a string of 'Operations Riviresa' ousted them. The loss of image they suffered over this was enormous.

Though that be so, the image of LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, as a military and a political alternative, remains in the Tamil psyche. It is this image that has to be demolished. This requires both a viable military and political strategy.

That is the drive behind LTTE's military resistance over the seven months of 'Operation Jaya Sikurui.' Unitil that is overcome, the LTTE will remain a force to reckon with.

Already 'Operation Jaya Sikurui' has set a few military records - the longest operation in Sri Lanka's history with the largest losses in human and material terms. But a major record is still waiting to be set - the opening of a land based main supply route to Jaffna. With that will come another record - sidelining the LTTE to the eastern part of the Wanni and a new sweep against them. Coming months will undoubtedly be crucial.

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