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The Situation Report

28th March 1999

Did LTTE misjudge Op. Rana Gosa II advance?

By Iqubal Athas

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Security forces contin-ued the thrust of "Operation Rana Gosa," (Battle cry) early this week launching the second phase to re-capture more territory and bring more civilians under their control.

With that over, Security Forces Commander, Wanni Major General Lionel Balagalle, was last Tuesday briefing a top level audience at his Vavuniya Headquarters on how the military's third offensive for this year (after Rana Gosa One and Bunker Buster) was successfully executed.

"Since the re-capture of Jaffna, this is the most significant achievement," he declared. This was the second offensive he had directed upon becoming SF Commander in the Wanni. The first was "Operation Rivi Bala" on December 4, last year, which led to the re-capture of 134 square kilometres on the eastern flank of A-9 (Kandy-Jaffna) highway.

Reacting to that observation promptly was Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, who was there in his regular battle fatigues and red beret with all the insignia of a four star General. He asked an aide to telephone Colombo and request Ariya Rubasinghe, Director of Information, to call back immediately. The call arrived in no time and Minister Ratwatte told Mr. Rubasinghe to immediately rush a media team to Madhu area. Within an hour, 28 journalists were winging their way there.

Even if a nine month old censorship remained in force and the media, both local and foreign, were banned from operational areas, they joined in unhesitatingly. This was the second conducted tour in a week, the first being Irana Iluppaikulam after the execution of the first phase of "Operation Rana Gosa." For some unexplainable reason, The Sunday Times was left out of both visits. Such visits not only showed there was unceasing media interest in the separatist war but also underscored another reality - the media welcomed anything beyond the sketchy news releases put out by the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, the only official source of news on the war. Some media personnel who were left out of the hurriedly planned tour complained but Information Department officials insisted they could not be reached.

As one of the aging Sri Lanka Air Force Mi-17 helicopters took off from Colombo with its load of media personnel, the conference at the Wanni SF headquarters continued.

Minister Ratwatte discussed immediate plans to restore normalcy in the Madhu area. Electricity supply was to be restored. Roads were to be re-constructed. Telephone facilities were to be made available. Tube wells were to be dug in several areas. Sanitary facilities were to be improved. Non Governmental Organisations, keen to launch development work in the area, were to be invited and given full support.

Taking part in the conference were Commanders of the Army (Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya), Navy (Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera), Air Force (Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkoddy), Inspector General of Police (Lucky Kodituwakku), DIG Wanni (Mohan Jayawardena), senior military and police officials.

Three senior Army officials took part in the conference as Brigadiers, but, when it ended they were returning to their respective headquarters in the Wanni as Majors General. Military Secretary (and official Media Spokesman) Brigadier Sunil Tennekoon had telephoned Wanni SF headquarters to convey the news that the Ministry of Defence had approved the promotion of six Brigadiers. Brigadiers Sisira Wijesuriya (GOC- 53 Division), and Gamini Gunasekera (GOC - 56 Division) had boarded an SLAF helicopter to return to their headquarters. An Air Traffic Controller at Vavuniya radioed the pilot to ask the duo to alight, get to the closest phone in the defence complex and speak to Major General Balagalle. He broke the news that they were now Majors General. Brigadier Susil Chandrapala (GOC-55 Division) who drove to his headquarters by road heard the news on the phone.

Two other Brigadiers serving in the Jaffna peninsula too have been promoted. They were Majors General Nihal Marambe (GOC - 51 Division) and Nanda Mallawaratchi (GOC - 52 Division). The move also saw the confirmation of the posts of five others who were serving as acting Majors General.

Barely 48 hours after the conference, two large power generators from the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) had arrived in the Madhu area. Engineers were busy directing workmen to lay power lines for temporary connections. The Government officials were directing the distribution of free cooked meals to civilians. That was to continue for three days after which free dry rations are to be issued for two weeks.

Army officials were helping to move other commodities like kerosene oil. Like in the areas cleared after the first phase of "Operation Rana Gosa," price of a bottle of kerosene in the Madhu area had remained at around Rs 140. In some areas the prices still remained high.

The need to launch a rehabilitation programme and to open CWE outlets in the area, among other matters, figured at a conference in Colombo chaired by Kusumsiri Balapatabendi, Secretary to the President. Taking part were Governor of the North East, Major General Asoka Jayawardena, N.A. Obadage, Chairman, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Authority of the North (RRAN) Government Agents in the north and parliamentarians representing areas in the north. It was held at the Presidential Secretariat last Thursday.

As reported in these columns, the re-capture of new territory and restoring normal life has become the main objectives of the two phases of "Operation Rana Gosa."

Phase two of "Operation Rana Gosa" began on March 19, when two battalions of Special Forces broke out from two different flanks. Heading the advance from Moonrumurippu were men from the first battalion of the Special Forces. They were followed by the Army's 53 Division including elements of the Air Mobile Division. Similarly, troops from the second battalion of the Special Forces broke out from the Madhu Road and were followed by men from 55 Division. (See map on this page).

The element of surprise the security forces maintained, Military officials said, brought them good dividends. The LTTE had misjudged the advance firstly assuming the troops were proceeding to Aandankulam and later in the direction of Parappaka daththan, they said. Their 122 mm artillery positions in Viduthalthivu and 120 mortar locations in Pappamodai could not be directed at the advancing troops. Infiltration of cadres to direct fire became difficult, they added.

Hence, the LTTE fired over 40 rounds of artillery and mortars on the 212 Brigade Headquarters at Thallady in Mannar on March 20 - the second day of the operation. Most fell within the camp while a few fell outside. There were no casualties since troops had taken cover. Exact locations at Thallady came to be known to LTTE after the devastating artillery and mortar attack on March 17. Taking cover from positions a few kilometres away, Tiger guerrillas showered 122 mm artillery and 120 mm mortars on the camp killing 11 soldiers and three civilians. Fifteen soldiers and four civilians were wounded. Artillery ammunition, fuel dumps, ration stores were among those blown up. It caused losses running into millions of rupees. (Situation Report March 21, 1999).

Troops made contact with their enemy only when they were attempting to make hurried exits. A heavy confrontation occurred between troops of the Air Mobile Brigade and Tiger guerrillas at Palampiddy. Another was on the Palampiddy to Viduthalthivu road where troops ambushed a Double Cab painted in camouflage. The driver and another were killed whilst three others escaped. It has now been confirmed that the man killed was Ruban, the LTTE leader of the area. Tiger guerrillas are reported to have had a large amount of money in the Double Cab.

Men from the second battalion of Special Forces encountered a Tiger guerrilla group at Parappakadaththan. One Special Forces soldier was killed - the only casualty during phase two of "Operation Rana Gosa." Another soldier was wounded.

On March 22 at 9.30 a.m. troops of the 53 Division and the 55 Division linked up at Palampiddy thus encircling a chunk of land 325 square kilometres. It was around 4.30 p.m. on that day when Colonel Athula Jayawardena, Commander of the 551 Brigade wanted to enter the Madhu Church. A priest politely reminded him they were welcome but not with their weapons. The Army officer readily obliged. He left his weapon with a soldier and walked in.

The news of security forces re-capturing Madhu and other surrounding areas under their control delighted the Catholic community who venerate the church there as one of their most sacred places of worship. Such a move could not have come to the Government at a better time than the impending Provincial Council elections on April 6.

The way phase two of "Operation Rana Gosa" was carried out earned the praise of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sri Lanka. Its head, Bo Schack, said "this may be the first time and only time during a military operation where civilians in the area came out victorious."

UNHCR officials in Madhu who saw the troops advance reported to their headquarters in Colombo that they did not at all interfere with the Open Relief Centres (ORC) in the area. Mr. Schack who was pleased at the turn of events said " providing relief to civilians in the midst of conflict is what our work is about."

He added "we had a symbiotic relationship with the (Madhu) church authorities and became key guarantors of the ability to maintain people's confidence and credibility. In 1990, the UNHCR created the first Open Relief Centre at the outbreak of hostilities between security forces and the LTTE. The Madhu Centre together with another centre close to Palampiddy, some six kilometres north, accommodated at the time of phase two of Rana Gosa, over 20,000 displaced persons with some 5,000 more civilians from surrounding villages. They sought relief there from the fighting in the recent weeks.

The figures are expected to rise when plans get under way to re-settle internally displaced persons from the Mannar area who now live in camps in Puttalam. According to estimates prepared by the Commissioner General of Essential Services (CGES), there are over 65,000 IDPs there, at least a half of them, if not more, who were displaced from the Mannar area.

Such a re-settlement programme is yet to be formulated though officials concede it is one of the main aims in the restoration of normalcy in Madhu area. In such an event, it is not just the LTTE the authorities would have to contend with. There are the other non militant groups that help the security forces. The Open Relief Centre concept of providing protection from military operation, UNHCR officials say, is based on an unwritten understanding from 1990 with both the Army and the LTTE - the Army not shelling the area and the LTTE not having combatants there. The UNHCR defines an Open Relief Centre as a temporary place where displaced persons on the move can freely enter or leave and obtain essential relief assistance in a relatively safe environment.

ORC's were developed after June, 1990, as a pragmatic response to humanitarian needs emerging from the ground situation in the Mannar district. The first centre was set up as a result of fleeing civilians having gathered in the thousands around the Madhu church, a holy place and sanctuary widely recognised by all and wanting safety from the new outbreak of hostilities. They sought UNHCR's help in ensuring the neutral character of the area through its contacts with both the army and the LTTE. Since then the continued presence of both the Catholic church and UNHCR has been instrumental in confirming the character of the places as neutral avoiding hostilities in the area over the years.

The population figures have fluctuated significantly between some 35,000 in 1991/1992 and down to around 5,000 around 1993 following the changes in the hostilities. In 1993 the newer Open Relief Centres close to Palampiddy were established mainly to accommodate new returnees from India. During relatively calmer periods residents returned home to the areas they came from or particularly in the more recent year used the centres as transit before being able to return to Jaffna.

According to UNHCR officials, over the last two weeks during the new large influx of civilians, both UNHCR and the church reiterated the concern about maintaining the safety of the civilians in case of a military operation seeking to capture the areas around the two centres, which had become increasingly likely. After the operation, Mr Schack said, UNHCR is relieved that both sides observed the status of the area by not making it the subject of active military hostilities taking place only a few kilometres away. Until the very last moment civilians continued to arrive and at the time of the operation the centres constituted an island of displaced.

UNHCR started operating in Sri Lanka in 1987 linked to repatriation of refugees from India as a result of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. As a result of hostilities in mid 1990, after the the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1989, UNHCR protection and assistance activities became increasingly focused on internally displaced persons based on an understanding with the Sri Lankan government and approved by the UN Secretary General first in 1991 and reconfirmed in 1997.

There is no doubt that the second phase of "Operation Rana Gosa" has by wresting over 325 square kilometres of LTTE dominated terrain provided considerable depth on the western flank to A-9 (Kandy-Jaffna) highway axis from Vavuniya to Kilinochchi. Earlier, "Operation Rivi Bala" provided similar depth on the eastern flank. Thus, now the A-9 axis is to a great extent secured from surprise flank attacks, as was the threat during early stages of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured). This will give the Army the advantage of securing the A-9 axis by semi-combatant troops thus releasing the better trained units and formations to more active operational duties.

Regaining control of over 1,000 square kilometres of central Wanni has denied the LTTE access to refugee camps as well as to the local population dispersed in that area, thus, perhaps attenuating their recruitment base. As to how much of a real set back this would be is, as of now, speculative. This is considering that it is hardly likely that the LTTE would not have earlier exploited the recruiting potential of these areas, including cadres into baby and women's brigades.

What is probably more important in the immediate assessment is the psychological impact of these reversals to the LTTE both in Sri Lanka and abroad. This begs the question as to why the LTTE gave up this territory without any real resistance.

One reason adduced is that the Army took the LTTE by surprise in a maneouvre their enemy did not expect. As against that is the argument that with the attrition on the advance on the A-9, the Army by tactical necessity had to enlarge their positions on the A-9 to provide depth even though the Main Supply Route (MSR) strategy was abandoned.

To do so, the obvious options were to strike West and East. That such a strategy opened other tactical options re-inforce the obviousness of the action. Not to have foreseen that is to underestimate LTTE planning. Therefore, to assume that the LTTE were taken by surprise runs counter to their demonstrated acumen. To the LTTE, as indeed, it is an accepted principle in guerrilla doctrine, the military plan is subordinate to political strategy. It is in this context that LTTE action and reactions should be read. Whereas they have conceded territory, no doubt of value to their Wanni base, they have on the other hand stepped up their overall politico-military counter offensive.

They have not permitted political stability to be re-established in the Jaffna peninsula. They have activated a wide spread, low profile small bomb campaign on selective economic targets. The abortive Mt. Lavinia suicide bomber's attack demonstrates the LTTE threat on selective human targets.

In all their concerted activity, the design of the LTTE is to force the security forces to deploy as thinly and as widely as possible.

This is to deny the security forces the advantage of concentrating resources and effort. The military, economic and political consequences of this will be expensive in terms of resources, both human and material. This in turn will increase the pressure on political attrition. That is the classical "battle of the flea."

The Government, on the other hand, is elated over the territorial gains made in the Wanni, not totally without reason either. The security forces have made creditable progress and consolidated their positions even though it means a thinned out security cover of the area.

But more than that, the military success has come as heady propaganda to the People's Alliance on an election eve. This perhaps illustrates the subtlety of difference between the political calculations of the LTTE and the Government.

The purpose of the ongoing separatist war is to serve a national strategy and not to enhance parochial political agendas. Towards that end, both political aims, military aims and objectives must have a national purpose.


Taraki's Column

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