The taking of Elephant Pass

Published : May 13, 2000 00:00 IST

For the first time in the history of the 'Tamil Eelam war', the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has seized control of Elephant Pass, the gateway to the Jaffna Peninsula. A graphic account of the Tigers' strategy and its successful implementatio n.


THE military balance in Sri Lanka's Tamil-dominated Northern Province has undergone a drastic transformation after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) seized the vast military complex in the area around Elephant Pass, or Aanai Iravu as it is know n in Tamil. The Elephant Pass isthmus was of strategic importance as it linked the northern mainland known as Wanni with the Jaffna Peninsula. Both the Jaffna-Kandy road, the A-9 Highway, and the railway line to Jaffna run through Elephant Pass, and the narrow strip of land was in a sense the gateway to Jaffna.

The fall of Elephant Pass marked the first time in the history of the "Tamil Eelam war" that the area had come under the LTTE's control. The Dutch colonialists first built a small fortress in 1776, which was converted in modern times into a resthouse for tourists. After Independence a permanent garrison was set up there to check illicit immigration, smuggling and unlawful transport of timber. As the intensity of the ethnic conflict escalated, the strategic importance of Elephant Pass also increased. The small camp gradually expanded into a sprawling complex. At one time, the Elephant Pass base and the satellite camps covered an area about 23 km long and 8-10 km wide.

To celebrate the capture of Elephant Pass, the LTTE organised a flag-raising ceremony at 9 a.m. on Sunday, April 23. According to Tiger media outlets, hundreds of LTTE cadres and a large number of Tamil civilians who serve as members of an auxiliary forc e known as "Thunaippadai" watched as the crimson-and-gold LTTE flag was hoisted by 'Colonel' Bhanu. As Bhanu, 38, stepped back and saluted the flag, LTTE fighters fired ceremonially in the air, and seven artillery field guns fired three shells each. Ther eafter, Bhanu addressed the gathering.

In his speech, Bhanu said this was only the first step in "the war to liberate our homeland" and there would be "many more battles". The valour and sacrifices of the LTTE fighters, he said, had made it possible to realise the "dream of annihilating Aanai Iravu". The camp, established by the Dutch over 200 years ago, had for long remained "a symbol of alien domination" and divided the Tamil people of the peninsula from the mainland, Bhanu said, and added: "Now it is no more. After we transport all that n eeds to be removed from here we will raze this place to the ground except for a small structure to remind ourselves of this oppressive symbol... Our enemies will not be allowed to return and occupy this place in the future."

Paying tributes to the memory of "all our comrades who laid down their lives in this battle and the campaigns before," Bhanu said that the LTTE fighters had succeeded because of the "very intricate attack plan drawn by our national leader and commander-i n-chief (Velupillai Prabakaran), the smooth execution of the plan by his lieutenants and the courageous fighting done by the cadres." The victory, he said, was a sign of "more things to come". Sweets were then distributed.

What followed immediately afterwards was rich in symbolism, and marked a defining moment for the LTTE. Groups of hand-picked civilians and some Tiger cadres in uniform walked along the Elephant Pass causeway on the isthmus that links the Wanni area with the peninsula. One group walked northwards from the mainland to the peninsula, and another went southwards from the peninsula to the mainland. The significance of this "walk" was that for the first time in living memory there were no barriers or men in k haki to stop the people crossing to and from the peninsula. For the Tamil civilians, a symbol of oppression had been eradicated.

Ten years ago Bhanu had been in a similar situation. On September 26, 1990, the 350-year-old Fort in the heart of Jaffna town had fallen to the LTTE; triumphant Tiger cadres led by Bhanu raised the LTTE flag at the Fort. Bhanu, who hailed from Ariyalai, was then Jaffna district commander. He had earlier served as Mannar commander. However, when an operation led by him against an army outpost at Thachan Kadu failed, resulting in the death of many LTTE cadres, Prabakaran demoted him. Bhanu was sent to the Wanni area for a while, but a few years later his position was restored and he was entrusted with a crucial assignment.

Bhanu was ordered to raise an artillery unit for the LTTE, and this he did competently. Initially, the LTTE depended on artillery seized from the army after successful raids; later the LTTE procured artillery equipment on the black market and transported them by sea to Wanni. The LTTE allegedly recruited foreign mercenaries on a contract basis to teach them the finer points of artillery deployment. Today, the LTTE's artillery unit is named after former Jaffna commander Kittu, and is still commanded by B hanu.

Pleased with Bhanu's work, Prabakaran is believed to have directed him to establish an armoured unit. Again, in the initial stages the LTTE could use only a few armoured cars and tanks seized from the armed forces. It is also rumoured that a renegade Sin hala army officer imparted some rudimentary training to the Tigers on the use of armoured vehicles. Later vehicles were purchased in the international arms market and shipped to Wanni. The armoured unit, named after former Mannar commander Victor and com manded by Bhanu, is still in a fledgling state.

The artillery and armoured units played a crucial role in the fighting in the Wanni region. They were responsible for checking the advances of the armed forces. In recent times the style of LTTE fighting in positional warfare situations has undergone a d ramatic transformation. Owing to their artillery power and armoured vehicles, the Tigers can hold off the army from afar with the minimum number of casualties. The nature of the war is increasingly becoming conventional, with heavy reliance on stand-off weapons.

In the recent fighting around Elephant Pass, the LTTE's artillery and armoured units again played a big role and enabled the LTTE to seize control within a short period with relatively few losses. In fact, Bhanu was given the honour of raising the flag a s an acknowledgement of the contribution of the Kittu and Victor units. Interestingly, Prabakaran does not hoist the flag or pose before the LTTE's video cameras after a victory. He lets his deputies who fought on the battlefield take the credit. It is, however, stated that it is Prabakaran who plans and coordinates operations.

THE recent LTTE victory at Elephant Pass was the result of an elaborate but simple strategy drawn up by Prabakaran. It is said that Prabakaran analyses the LTTE's military defeats for mistakes and draws lessons from them for use in subsequent campaigns. In that respect, a failed attempt by the LTTE to capture the Elephant Pass camp in July-August 1991 must have yielded many lessons. That campaign was codenamed "Tharai, Kadal, Aahayam" (Land, Sea and Air) and lasted 53 days. The LTTE, by its own admissio n, lost 573 cadres; more than 1,500 others were injured. In terms of manpower and morale, these were crippling losses.

The Sri Lankan armed forces were able to beat back the LTTE that time owing to two factors. The first was the tenacity of the besieged troops led by a talented officer Sarath Fonseka and the grit with which they held on despite the overwhelming odds. The second was Operation Balavegaya, led by the late Generals Denzil Kobbekaduwe and Vijaya Wimalaratne. They established a beach-head at Vettilaikerny on the east coast and then fought their way through to the army personnel trapped inside the Elephant Pas s camp. Thereafter the camp was converted into a large base by absorbing almost all the buildings in the vicinity, including the salterns and the school. Satellite camps were established at Vettilaikerny, Kattaikadu and Pullaveli. Thus, a safe supply rou te by sea and land was ensured. After Operation SathJaya in 1996, Paranthan and Kilinochchi, to the south of Elephant Pass on the mainland, too were linked up with Elephant Pass. The Kilinochchi-Elephant Pass-Vettilaikerny base became a sprawling complex that housed an entire division and was considered impregnable.

Given these circumstances, Prabakaran resorted to a strategy to take Elephant Pass by gradually encircling and enfeebling the troops inside by cutting off supplies and strangulating the base. The idea was to avoid a frontal assault that would have led to the loss of many lives, since the armed forces had numerical and logistical superiority.

The LTTE strategy was made easier by the second phase of Operation Oyatha Alaigal (Unceasing Waves) in September 1998, in which Kilinochchi was taken. Thereafter the LTTE began to creep in on Paranthan, to the south of Elephant Pass on the mainland. In a series of short, swift campaigns that went unreported in the Colombo media, the camps at Karadipokku, Paranthan Junction, the Paranthan Chemical Corporation complex and finally at Umaialpuram, between Paranthan and Elephant Pass, were taken. Umaialpuram and Iyakachchi were the two points where the troops at Elephant Pass could get drinking water. (The water within the Elephant Pass base was too brackish for consumption.)

THE first stage of the LTTE campaign to take control of the peninsula was launched on December 11, 1999 (see "Tactical Shift", Frontline, January 7, 2000). The camps at Vettilaikerny and Kattaikadu on the east coast and Pullaveli to the north of E lephant Pass were taken in a land-sea joint campaign. An unsuccessful assault was conducted on the western flanks of Iyakachchi, but no direct attack was launched on the main base at Elephant Pass. The Iyakachchi camp, five km to the northwest of Elephan t Pass, is situated along a bend on the A-9 Highway. With the fall of Vettilaikerny, Kattaikadu and Pullaveli, the land-sea supply routes to Elephant Pass were cut off, and the only way through was along the A-9 Highway from Chavakachcheri. The LTTE cond ucted some limited operations that were aimed at stepping up the pressure on Iyakachchi without achieving any breakthrough.

Meanwhile, the 53rd Division of the Sri Lanka Army was brought in to relieve the pressure on the 54th Division deployed in the Elephant Pass sector; it was stationed at the Pachilaippalli and Vadamaratchy East Pradeshiya division camps. The 53rd Division was an elite force that had been trained by the United States and Pakistan.

The second stage of the LTTE campaign, a multi-pronged assault, unfolded on March 26, 2000 (see "Another offensive", Frontline, April 28). A joint operation led by Vasanthan of the Charles Anthony Infantry division and Veerendran of the Sea Tigers took control of the Chembiyanpattru-Maruthankerny-Thalaiady complex that housed the 3rd operational headquarters on the Vadamaratchy east coast. These were on the land strip between the Bay of Bengal and the Jaffna Lagoon. The army then vacated the camp s at Maamunai and Amban; the soldiers relocated to positions to the west of the lagoon.

Simultaneously, a squad from the LTTE "Siruthai" (Leopard) Commando brigade raided Pallai, the largest junction to the north of Iyakachchi on the A-9 Highway, and decommissioned at least 11 pieces of artillery. A contingent led by the LTTE's deputy milit ary chief Balraj then took a swathe of the Jaffna-Kandy road between Pallai and Eluthumattuvaal. These included the areas around Arasakerni, Ithavil, Indrapuram. Muhamaalai and Kovil Kadu. With this, the LTTE effectively cut off the main road link betwee n the Elephant Pass/Iyakachchi camps and Jaffna. On April 10, the armed forces recaptured a major portion of the road but failed to dislodge the Tigers completely.

There was, however, a circuitous route that helped maintain a road link. At Pallai, a road branched off westwards from the A-9 Highway towards Kilali via Puloppalai and then headed north towards Kachchai and Allippalai; from there it ran east towards Kod ikamam, at which point vehicles could get back onto the Jaffna-Kandy road again. However, this route came under intense pressure from the LTTE which fired artillery barrages at Kilali from Pooneryn across the lagoon.

Also on March 26, the LTTE's Kilinochchi commander Theepan led a team of men across the dried-up Chundikulam lagoon on the southeast of the peninsula and established positions in the Mullian and Vannankulam region. But the team ran into the Forward Defen ce Lines and was prevented from advancing towards Elephant Pass in the Vathirayan area.

The third and decisive stage of the LTTE campaign was played out around noon on Tuesday, April 18. A Leopard commando raid saw the LTTE take control of the Maruthankerny causeway, which enabled it to proceed westwards on the Maruthankerny-Puthukadu Junct ion road, which links the east coast and the A-9 Highway. The Puthukadu Junction is between Iyakachchi and Pallai. The LTTE proceeded along the southern areas of Muhavil, Soranpattru and Maasaar, after demolishing a 40-foot bund put up by the army as a d efence measure. The Tigers headed south on the A-9 Highway and reached the northern sector of the Iyakachchi camp. In effect, Elephant Pass and Iyakachchi were marooned.

Thereafter, the LTTE mounted a fierce attack on the Iyakachchi camp from Kovil Vayal and Sangathaar Vayal. As the fighting intensified, the Tiger cadres to the southeast of Elephant Pass broke through and began assailing the camp. The armoured and artill ery units led by Bhanu pounded the base and inched forward. The telecommunication tower in the Elephant Pass base was damaged; all telephone lines to the north were severed.

At a critical juncture the bulk of LTTE cadres led by Balraj abandoned the A-9 Highway and joined the fighting around Iyakachchi after setting up two "cut out" posts to the north of Pallai and south of Eluthumattuvaal to prevent an army advancement. Heav y fighting in and around Iyakachchi began on April 20. The Tigers positioned themselves to the south of the camp and cut it off from Elephant Pass.

Iyakachchi fell on April 21. The LTTE entered the camp and destroyed ammunition dumps and buildings. Thereafter, the theatre of war shifted to Elephant Pass. The LTTE advanced on Elephant Pass from the north, northeast and southeast. There was heavy exch ange of fire all through that long night, and even as the fighting was on, the army began to move out. By 11-30 a.m. on April 22, the large garrison at Elephant Pass "vacated" it. The LTTE marched in at 2-30 p.m. the same day. The flag was hoisted on Apr il 23.

AFTER the LTTE's stage-by-stage build-up against Elephant Pass, the abrupt capitulation by the security forces came as an anti-climax. Curiously, however, the LTTE, which had until then put out news at each successful stage of the campaign, did not annou nce the fall of Iyakachchi on April 21; it announced that news along with news of the fall of the Elephant Pass camp. This perhaps implies that after taking control of Iyakachchi, the LTTE was supremely confident that Elephant Pass would fall soon or had advance knowledge that the troops there would withdraw within hours of the Iyakachchi debacle.

The security forces vacated Elephant Pass only after they received orders to that effect from the defence establishment. Army commander Srilal Weerasooriya instructed Chief of Staff Lionel Balagalle to issue the order, which was sent by personal courier to Elephant Pass. Commanding Officer Brigadier Egodawela received it at 10 p.m. on April 21.

The retreating troops initially started moving out to Pallai, 14 km away, along the A-9 Highway, but when the LTTE thwarted them, they took to a disused rail track and a sandtrack to its west. From Pallai, the soldiers headed west for the relative safety of Kilali. But when Tiger mortars pounded this route, the army used another circuitous route - a dirt track going northwest from Elephant Pass to Kilali through Kurinchatheevu, Oorvanikanpattru and Thanmankerny. On this longer route, however, many soldi ers succumbed to heat and dehydration, apart from the unceasing LTTE shells.

Nevertheless a good number of the troops moved out from Elephant Pass, mostly on foot. Before leaving, they spiked some artillery pieces, but even so the LTTE seized some powerful guns, including 152-mm artillery guns, and a number of tanks and armoured cars, besides other arms and ammunition. A preliminary list released by the LTTE reveals a mind-boggling armoury. Elephant Pass was in many ways a military debacle for Colombo.

ALTHOUGH there were more than 15,000 troops in the Elephant Pass base and there are fewer than 5,000 LTTE cadres in the peninsula, the army was defeated because it was a demoralised force. Many factors had contributed to the lowering of troop morale. The frequent change of commanding officers was one factor, and the LTTE's repeated victories against the elite 53rd Division, the "Pride of the Army", were another. The haphazard manner in which the 53rd Division was plunged into combat caused many problems at the top. One dissenting commanding officer, Brig. Gamini Hettiaratchy, was transferred. Another officer, Gen. Sisira Wijeysinghe, went on sick leave. Brig. Sivali Wanigaseker was sent in as acting command.

The defence establishment's decision to move the troops out of the Elephant Pass base was, however, forced on it primarily by a shortage of drinking water. The camp was equipped with machinery for desalination of water, but it had broken down and not bee n repaired. The availability of potable water in Umaialpuram and Iyakachchi had perhaps lulled the forces into complacency. However, when Iyakachchi came under siege, the water crisis in the overcrowded base became unmanageable. Ironically, the Elephant Base base had ample quantities of canned food and dry rations; after taking over the camp, the LTTE distributed these to civilians in the Wanni area.

Defence Ministry sources estimate that over 1,000 LTTE cadres were killed in the three phases of fighting from December 11, 1999. The LTTE claims that only 303 of its cadres were killed, including 35 casualties in the battle for Elephant Pass. The Tigers further claim that over 1,000 soldiers were killed; the Army, however, says that only 80 of its men were killed and over 100 are missing in action. Subsequently the Tigers returned through the Red Cross the bodies of 126 soldiers, of which 28 were ident ified. Among the top Army officers who were killed were Brig. Percy Fernando, Col. Bhatiya Jayatilleke, Col. Neil Akmeemana and Lt. Col. Hewage Hewawasam. On the Tigers' side, the women's brigade chief, 'Lt. Col.' Lakshiya, was reported killed.

The Elephant Pass debacle shocked people across the country. Sri Lankan Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte, however, sought to put a brave face on the defeat. Addressing a ministerial function, he said that the "setback" at Elephant Pass ought to be seen as a "natural phenomenon in wars of this nature... We have to accept both victories and setbacks in the same manner."

In a televised address to the nation, President Chandrika Kumaratunga stated that her Government "has unequivocally decided to protractedly and relentlessly pursue with the military operations". Kumaratunga had made some abrupt changes in the defence str uctureure barely days before the fall of the Elephant Pass base, and established a National Security Council. Retired Chief of the Army Staff Rohan Daluwatte was placed in overall charge of the three Services. Gen. Janaka Perera was made Northern Provinc e Commander and General Sarath Fonseka the Jaffna Commander.

After a brief lull following the LTTE's taking of Elephant Pass, fighting erupted again. The LTTE called on all civilians from Pallai to Kodikamam, including Eluthumattuvaal and Mirusuvil, to relocate to safe areas. Thereafter, LTTE cadres moved along th e A-9 Highway and seized the camps at Pallai and Soranpattru north, which the armed forces abandoned after a brief show of resistance. The LTTE units then linked up on the A-9 Highway from the north of Pallai to the south of Eluthumattuvaal.

The Tigers then launched a two-track assault on Kilali. One column proceeded on the 18-km dirt track from Elephant Pass to Kilali along the coast. Another moved westwards from Pallai to Puloppalai and then on to Kilali. Both columns reached the Kilali ar ea, but as on May 5 they had not made further progress. A rumour, however, spread in Colombo, and a few newspapers carried reports, that Bhanu had been killed at Kilali. However, there has been no reliable confirmation of this.

The LTTE also opened another flank with an attack on Nagar Kovil on the Vadamaratchy east coast. The Tigers as well as the army were engaged in heavy exchange of fire in the Kilali, Nagar Kovil and Pallai-Eluthumattuvaal areas.

MEANWHILE, the armed forces have begun constructing massive defences along a diagonal line from Kilali on the west through Eluthumattuvaal to Nagar Kovil in the east. Further, several small camps like those at Varany, Mathagal, Chankanai, Vaddukkoddai, M ahiyapiddy, Navaly, Chulipuram and Kandarodai have been closed. Troops are being redeployed in the frontline areas. The army's immediate priority is to prevent the LTTE from advancing to Jaffna town or the Palali-Kankesanthurai tri-Services base complex.

There is intense speculation about how the LTTE will advance further. Will it head north on the A-9 Highway? Or will it proceed from Kilali to Chavakachcheri through Kachchai or Kodikamam? After reaching Chavakachcheri will it head for Jaffna or for Pala ly? Will it move north along the Vadamaratchi coast via Nagar Kovil and take control of Point Pedro, Velvettithurai and Thondamanaru? From Thondamanaru will it go for Palaly through Valalai or Jaffna through Atchuvely? Or will it move to Jaffna or Chavak achcheri from Ariyalai or Thanankilappu after bringing in the 1,000-plus reserves stationed under Karuna's command in the Pooneryn region on the mainland? All these questions trouble not only the army but also the civilians who do not want to be caught i n the line of fire. Given the intense artillery barrages, the civilians' plight is precarious.

The anticipated progress of the LTTE has also raised concerns about the future of around 35,000 troops in the peninsula. The fear is that the Tigers, with their rapid mobility and artillery firepower, could quickly take over the entire peninsula includin g Jaffna and Palaly and besiege the Palaly-Kankesanthurai complex. If that happens, there may not be time enough to evacuate troops from the peninsula. The Sea Tigers and the LTTE's anti-aircraft unit, which possess missiles, could restrict the troops' s ea and air movement. This would leave the troops marooned and defenceless. A "Dunkirk-like evacuation" may then become necessary and the possibility of securing India's assistance for this purpose is being explored.

There is however another view -that although the situation is quite bleak, the hysteria and panic about the necessity for a rescue operation are unfounded. Those who subscribe to this view believe that if troop morale is restored and adequate countermeas ures are taken, the LTTE juggernaut can be halted, and eventually pushed back. In any event, the belief is that there is no immediate cause for alarm about the fate of Palali. By May 6, Colombo appeared to be veering around to the position that the troop s were rallying gamely and that it would be possible to stop the LTTE's advance.

Whichever way the situation unfolds in the coming weeks, one thing is certain: while the guns around the gateway of Elephant Pass may have fallen silent after a long time, the Jaffna Peninsula will not see peace in the immediate future.

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