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The Situation Report

20th June 1999

At elephant PAss: Lanka's most difficult battlefront

By Iqbal Athas

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Lifting off from Palaly Airport, the Sri Lanka Air Force Bell 212 helicopter veers towards the sea and flies low hugging the coast. Over Point Pedro, within sight of the now defunct light house tower, it takes a sharp turn left and gains height over the deep seas. The coastline fades into a thin grey haze over the noon sun.

The smiles on the faces of the two young pilots, the only exposed part of an otherwise well attired overalls, helmets, boots and gloves exude confidence. Their eyes shift between the instrument panels and the flight path ahead. The door gunners on either side look through their goggles on the sea below for any boat movements. Their hands are on the triggers of 7.62 mm GPMGs (General Purpose Machine Guns). The only time they were off was when they handed over life vests to cameraman Alfred Silva and me. They were now standard issue when SLAF choppers flew over high seas. We sat on make-shift seats - Body Armour placed on top of ammo boxes.

Some 25 minutes later, the helicopter takes a circular turn as it drops height and heads towards land. The sight of the hazy shoreline improves as we close in. Rows and rows of tall palmyrah palms, jutting into the sky, add colour to the clear blue waters and the golden sandy beach. A gradual ascent and the young pilots display the finer professional skills SLAF has taught them - precision tree top flying.

Repeated notes of caution sounded by Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, had prompted the pilots in the north to be vary of possible missile attacks. Hence the occasional flight over the sea.

The view of the ground below tells the story of the dangers the terrain poses. Beginning with the sprawling unguarded beachfront, heavily grown bushes are all over. Only sporadic patches of dry land separate them. Standing tall in between are the palmyrah palms. Barring stray cattle, one catches glimpses of armed troops on search operations for intruders whilst colleagues provide cover.

Suddenly it is a complete change from one scenario to another. A vast open patch of land, once a saltern, appears suddenly like changing scenes in a movie. Standing in the middle is A-9, the Kandy-Jaffna highway. During monsoons, either side becomes a lagoon rich with crabs and prawns. Rest of the season, the dry bed means many things for troops - football fields, cricket grounds, training areas, physical training zones and areas for athletics. Yet, there are still vast areas left out.

Heavily armed troops, guns aimed outwards, surround a piece of what was once farmland and now an improvised helipad. As the helicopter comes into land, the whirring rotor blades stir up a storm of fine red dust. We lower our heads and dart towards a waiting vehicle. We cross officers and men clutching travel bags running towards the helicopter to catch an air ride to Palaly.

We have arrived at Elephant Pass, the gateway to Jaffna after the fall of Kilinochchi and acknowledgedly the 'most difficult battle station in Sri Lanka.' The description is not my own. That was a sentence from what a senior, battle hardened Army officer wrote in the Visitor's Book at 54 Division Headquarters, when he bid farewell upon relinquishing command.

If guerrilla infiltration and increased activity threatened to destabilise Jaffna peninsula, it is an entirely different story in Elephant Pass, where the Goose neck shaped peninsula is linked to mainland Sri Lanka through the causeway flanked on either side by the Jaffna lagoon.

This is the battle area where hardly a day passes without any action. The biggest threat comes from Tiger cadres who infiltrate. That happens frequently. They place claymore mines and other improvised explosive devices. Every morning troops clear the area, including the main A-9 highway for mines and other booby traps. They have become alive to other guerrilla ruses too. Once a small house in which the troops stayed, was booby trapped in the night. Tiger guerrillas expected the troops would just walk in the next morning. They did, but only after a thorough check was carried out. The IED (Improvised Explosive Device) was defused.

The influx of infiltrators is to reconnoitre security forces positions. This is to enable the LTTE to prepare battle plans. The frequent rapidity with which it took place showed the importance of Elephant Pass and left no doubts in the minds of senior security forces officials that the area is becoming an increasingly prime target.

A specialised group labelled Champions, for their survival skills, ability to speak fluent Sinhala, blend with the civilians and pose off in Army uniforms, is the toughest for the troops to contend with. There is also the equally tough Sea Tiger cadres and the ordinary ranks, who often get trapped during searches and ambushes.

If guerrilla intrusions and improvised explosive devices is a daily threat, so is the artillery and mortars that rain every now and then. The presence of guerrilla encampments encircling the defences makes some areas vulnerable but counter measures are in place.

"This is a most important piece of land. Prabhakaran (LTTE leader) knows it. If he can get this, the rest of the peninsula will fall into his hands," warns Major General Sarath Munasinghe, General Officer Commanding 54 Division. The former Military Spokesman and Director, Media at the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, now commands seven brigades in the Elephant Pass sector.

"A major attack is possible. It could be intense fighting. But we are ready for it," he says. (See interview on this page).

In 1991, the LTTE placed a month long siege on Elephant Pass. The late Generals Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Wijaya Wimalaratne spearheaded "Operation Balavegaya" to rescue a battalion of troops who were trapped there. Some senior officers who served there during three months of tense moments still speak of their encounters and experience.

Food and medicine for survival were air dropped. Some fell into the hands of the enemy who had surrounded the area. The heroism of a Sergeant who carried out an amputation using a kitchen knife bathed in Dettol was one of the bizarre and blood curdling stories. A Surgeon sitting in Palaly gave him step by step instructions on the radio. The Sergeant turned "Surgeon" is still serving though the amputee is now retired.

With lessons learnt from that siege eight years ago, Tiger guerrillas seem to be bent on detailed planning for a fresh onslaught. The rapid frequency of infiltration was clear evidence.

On June 12, two soldiers walking towards their camp at dusk saw two guerrillas running towards a bush. They opened fire and the duo fled. A search next day revealed blood marks on the ground. Six days later troops found the decomposed body of a guerrilla. A ration pack lay beside him. He had bitten a cyanide capsule.

On June 14, troops who conducted a search operation on the western defences saw the unusual movement of branches on a tree. They opened fire. A guerrilla in camouflage shorts fell dead. He had two hand grenades in his possession.

On June 16, a group of four guerrillas were spotted by a foot patrol on the Vettilaikerni sector. They opened fire killing three whilst the other escaped. Troops recovered two T-56 weapons, two Night Vision Devices, one Global Positioning System (GPS), two High Comm radio sets and ration packs. These were just three incidents among a list of several in the past weeks.

From January to June, this year, 244 guerillas have been killed in confrontations, says Brigadier K.B.Egodawela, Deputy General Officer commanding the 54 Division . He says during the same period, one officer and 20 soldiers have been killed. Recoveries had included assault rifles, grenades, communication sets, compasses, claymore mines and stocks of assorted ammunition.

"Artillery and mortar on the defended areas have shown a marked rise this month," says Colonel Rohan Anthonisz, Colonel, General Staff during a short briefing. He bared the statistics - January 41, February 42, March 161, April 213, and May 64. For June this year , during the first five days alone, there has been 17 cases . " The large increase in April is because we were in an offensive role," he adds.

Some 77 square kilometres of security forces controlled territory juts into the Wanni like a long box. The southernmost point is a short distance away from the Paranthan junction from where the Tiger guerrillas dominate the ground until Mankulam - the 28 kilometres gap in what would otherwise be the Main Supply Route (MSR) linking Jaffna peninsula to rest of mainland Sri Lanka.

From Paranthan, the stretch of the A-9 highway has been re-surfaced and a normal journey by vehicle to Jaffna would last just over an hour. West of the highway, defences overlook the general area of Pooneryn whilst on the east, it encompasses Murasumodai, Uriyan, Thadduvankody across the lagoon to a vast stretch extending to Mulliyan and Vettilaikerni.

The southernmost area, the Paranthan defences, lay surrounded on three fronts by Tiger guerrilla fortifications. Wearing Body Armour, we moved around the long winding bunker lines. Every step we take bares some aspect or the other of the life of soldiers in this most vulnerable sector. There are no living quarters or living rooms. The battlefield is their dining hall. During the dry season, fine sand that blows in the area gets into their food. During monsoon, it is a case of a mix with water. Make shift huts made from cadjan, rusted corrugated sheets or broken asbestos sheets found in the area is their home. (See Special Assignment-Situation Report on Page 8)

The roof is full of gaping holes. One could easily see the blue sky. Sleep is only if artillery or mortars do not fall. That is rare since they rain almost every night and day. It is a case of running to well fortified underground bunkers. That run, at the sound of the first volley, makes the difference between life and death.

From an observation point, I saw a lengthy palmyrah thatched fence of the LTTE just 300 metres ahead. "They don't man them. It's only a screen," says Colonel Lalith Daulagala, Commanding Officer of the 546 Brigade. "At any given time," he says, "troops dominate the area ahead of the defences." That is no easy task. Forward patrols have to avoid minefields placed to protect defence lines and other obstacles to venture ahead.

Later, Colonel Bhatiya Jayatilleke, Commanding Officer of 541 Brigade, drives us through a maze of jungle roads. At the open rear, a group of armed soldiers sit precariously as the Double Cab moves through bumpy mud tracks which are dry. We sit down below a small tent to watch live drills. In one, heavily armed soldiers in jungle camouflage fire their way through to smash a guerrilla bunker. Sounds of small arms fire and exploding grenades render the air. A young officer darts towards Cameraman Alfred Silva who steps ahead with his camera aimed on the assault area. He is brought back to his chair. The officer feared shrapnel from the exploding grenades could hit him. Later, the troops demonstrate an advance towards enemy territory. They fire their way through in clockwork precision, again to the deafening sounds of gunfire and explosions.

We were blissfully unaware troops in Elephant Pass were gearing themselves for real battlefield action just a day later. On June 10 they broke out from three different points on the western defences at pre dawn to advance in the direction of Pooneryn. They were part of "Operation Whirlwind" and were tasked to destroy guerrilla bunkers. Two officers and 19 soldiers were killed in the incident. A further 58 were injured.

At Iyakachchi, north of Elephant Pass lies a junction that is the turn off to Vettilaikerni, Mulliyan and the well known Chundikulam Bird Sanctuary. Here lies a string of wells that provide the best water in the north.

If water bowsers line up one after another to fill up, can loads are moved to camps in the peninsula for consumption. Yet there is a perennial supply", says Col. Leonard Marks, Commanding Officer, 542 Brigade.

Despite strains in normalcy in the Jaffna peninsula, life goes on without any major disruption. Preventing that major disruption and keeping the guerrillas at bay is what troops are doing at Elephant Pass. Despite the weekly intelligence warnings that repeatedly spoke of imminent attacks on Elephant Pass, one is yet to come. Infiltration of guerrilla cadres and reconnaissance continues. But the troops are both confident and ready if and when there is such an eventuality.

We are ready-GOC Elephant Pass

"A major attack on Elephant Pass defences is possible. There could be intense fighting but we are prepared for it," says Major General Sarath Munasinghe, General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Army' 54 Division.

The former Military Spokesman and Director Media at the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence now commands seven brigades in his sector, where guerrilla infiltration and attacks are a daily feature. A little known fact is that he himself escaped death eight months ago when he and a group of officers were at a field lunch. He was wounded in the feet and shrapnel is embedded near his ankle.

Maj. Gen. Munasinghe gave The Sunday Times an exclusive interview from his headquarters in Elephant Pass. Excerpts:

Vulnerability of Elephant Pass

"In 1991, Elephant Pass area was defended by one battalion of infantry. They placed the camp under siege for a month. No casualty evacuation was possible. Prabhakaran called it the mother of all battles. "Operation Balavegaya" was launched and troops linked up. The LTTE suffered a lot. Prabhakaran knows it is an important piece of land. if he can get this, rest of the peninsula will fall into his hands. He has to keep the pressure on his troops. That is why there is that much activity and harassment to our troops. This is the most difficult battle station. We are supplied by air and sea. Even the sea or our supply ends at Palaly. We have to cover 70 kilometres to get our supplies. We have to travel on a daily basis under threat. Even for a soldier going on leave, the first step is to get to Palaly to fly either to Anuradhapura or Colombo. We are constantly under threat. The LTTE can launch it anytime but we are prepared.

On possible ltte attacks

"They will make plans, carry out rehearsals and launch it when they feel confident. In December, (last year) and January, there was a feeling of being under siege. We have re-organised ourselves and pushed the enemy back. How we feel now is different to what we felt before. We are confident and we are ready. Although we don't see larger concentrations here, we do know they retain the capability to muster several hundreds for an attack. They have the transport and can use the existing road network.

Army's design of battle

"We conduct small groups operations. We dominate areas ahead of FDLs and our commandos move in these areas. We deploy small groups to avoid casualties due to terrorist artillery and mortar fire. Now artillery is directed at convoy movements.

Infiltration and attacks

"Most of the incidents have taken place in the northern sector where there are civilians. This includes areas like Pallai and Soranpattu. Our assessment is that a major attack is possible. It could be intense. This is why infiltration is taking place. They want to disrupt security forces activities. We have succeeded in minimising casualties by basic drills. Troops are required to practice them regularly. Major terrorist attacks have failed due to alertness of troops, aggressive domination of forward areas, monitoring ground indications and presence of commando elements upfront."

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