An operation drags on

Print edition : December 13, 1997

LTTE inflicts heavy losses on the Sri Lankan Army in the high-casualty war in the Wanni region.


THE recent outbreak of fighting between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Wanni has focussed attention again on Operation Jayasikuru (Certain Victory or Victory Assured), the lengthiest military operation in the island's contemporary history. The exercise, which began on May 13 (Frontline, June 11, 1997), has crossed the 200-day mark. The current round of fighting within the triangular territory of Puthoor, Kanakarayankulam and Mannaankulam in the heart of the Northern mainland known as the Wanni region, has seen very high casualties on both sides.

The fighting began on December 4 when two columns of the 53rd division broke out of the camp adjoining the Puthoor Naaga Thambiran Kovil and went in a general north-eastern direction towards Kanakarayankulam and a smaller village called Mannaankulam. In a pincer-type movement, the columns attacked an LTTE camp on the outskirts of Mannaankulam. After a brief skirmish, the LTTE withdrew and the triumphant troops prepared to consolidate themselves in Mannaankulam when the LTTE struck back with a vengeance.

In a battle described as "full scale war", the LTTE first used heavy artillery to pummel the soldiers and then attacked directly. With both sides engaged in close-up fighting that prevented the Sri Lankan side from using aerial support, the LTTE apparently inflicted heavy casualties. What has rankled Colombo most is the fact that the bulk of the 53rd division casualties has been from the elite Independent brigade of special forces commandos and the crack Air mobile unit. The commanding officer of the commandos, Lt. Col. Nilantha Lakmal Sirimanne, was killed in action.

As is often the case in a conflict situation, truth is one of the casualties. Both sides differed in their claims: the Army claimed that more than 200 Tigers were killed and the LTTE said that more than 300 troops were killed. Government communiques were vague about troop losses while the LTTE said that 37 of their cadres including two majors, two captains, nine lieutenants and six second lieutenants were killed. They also claimed that they had made a massive haul of weapons, including 148 Kalashnikov rifles and 96 light machine guns.

A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard on the highway near Puliyankulam on November 14.-

The LTTE also handed over 110 bodies of soldiers to the Red Cross. Independent defence analysts said that at least 147 soldiers including officers were killed and over 250 injured. They estimated LTTE casualties - that is, the dead and wounded - to be a little more than hundred. The soldiers abandoned Mannaankulam and returned to base.

The tragedy about this military manoeuvre being conducted in the interior of Sri Lanka's Tamil-dominated Northern Province is the tremendous human suffering. Over 475,000 civilians in the war zone have been affected; about 300,000 persons have been displaced from their homes. Food and medical supplies have been severely curtailed and the education of over 30,000 school children disrupted. Diseases like malaria and cholera are wreaking havoc. Monsoon floods add to the people's woes. Transport is almost paralysed. Civilian casualties, however, are quite minimal as most people have fled their homes. Another grim aspect of this war has been the ecological damageto forests and wildlife.

Knowledgeable military observers put the overall LTTE casualities in the war at more than 850 killed and about 1,500 injured. The figures for the army are about 1,000 killed and 5,000 wounded. The Government has also suffered great losses by way of arms and ammunition seized by the LTTE. The operational costs of the war too are very high. The Government has replaced the earlier operations commander Maj. Gen. Asoka Jayewardene with Major General Sri Lal Weerasooriya. Three divisions, namely the 53rd, 55th and 56th, which have a combined strength of 34,000, are involved in the operation.

The LTTE is said to be resisting the army with a cadre force that is roughly one-third the strength of these three divisions. The LTTE fighters consist of an assortment drawn from Charles Anthony and Jeyanthan infantry divisions, the women's brigade, the Leopard commando unit, the special bodyguard division of Prabakaran and the Wanni regulars. Six senior commanders - Balraj, Sornam, Karuna, Anbu, Bhanu and Jeyam - are coordinating the fighting on land under the overall command of Prabakaran.

The army began this operation with a two-fold purpose. The first was to venture deep into the LTTE-controlled territory and divide it into three manageable segments. The second was to open a viable ground route between Jaffna and the rest of the country instead of having to rely on sea and air links. If opening a land route was the only consideration, it would have been easier for the Government to have secured and utilised two other roads, the Medawachiya-Mannar road and the Talaimannar-Pooneryn road, in the north-western sector. But the Government opted for the difficult task of cutting through the central areas of the Northern Province using the main trunk road linking Jaffna and Kandy. This road is known as the A-9 axis. Despite the difficulties, the Government felt that invading LTTE territory would pay greater politico-military dividends.

Initially the army met with great success. It captured Omanthai, about 16 km. to the north of Vavuniya and Nedunkerny, about 40 km. to the north-east of Vavuniya. Vavuniya, the premier town in the south of the Northern province, is under the army control. The current operation is aimed at linking up Vavuniya with Kilinochi in the north.

After capturing and consolidating Omanthai and Nedunkerni, the army wanted to continue on the A-9 road axis and take Puliyankulam, roughly 35 km to the north of Vavuniya. The north-eastern region of the Wanni comprising Mullaitheevu district and substantial portions of Vavuniya and Kilinochi districts is considered the LTTE citadel.

This region has three main roads linked to the A-9 trunk road. One is the Paranthan-Mullaitheevu road. Paran-than - to the north of Kilinochi - is already in army hands. The second is from Mankulam on the Jaffna-Kandy road to Mullaitheevu. The third is from Puliyankulam to Mullaitheevu. The army had already captured a key junction, Nedunkerny, on the Puliyankulam-Mullaitheevu road. Mullaitheevu, a key link to these roads, is under LTTE control. What the army hoped to accomplish was to link up at Puliyankulam. The Omanthai and Nedunkerny columns were to meet there, after which Mankulam was to be taken. The link up with Kilinochi was to follow. Subsequently or simultaneously columns were to move north-eastwards and south-eastwards and retake Mullaitheevu.

The Government had rather optimistically envisaged that the Tiger heartland in the entire north-eastern region of the Wanni would be broken into three segments by consolidating the roads. This would have denied the LTTE access to the main roads and confine it to pockets of jungle. But when the troops tried to take Puliankulam, they found that it was not that simple. A very stiff counter campaign embarked upon by the resilient LTTE, which is on a "Do or Die" mission, has met with some success so far.

The situation right now is that the army has set up big camps in areas such as Omanthai, Periyamadu, Puthoor, Sinna Adampan, Karaippukuthi, Katkidanku, Vignaanakulam, Olumadu, Karippatta-murippu, Nedunkerny, Madhiamadu and Nainamadhu. These are all close to Mankulam, Puliyankulam and Kanakarayankulam. Yet the army has so far been unable to penetrate the LTTE defence. The LTTE has hampered military mobility further by destroying the Kanakarayan Aaru bridge.

The LTTE has conducted four counter attacks against army positions by doubling back across army lines of control. It has also intercepted major army advances on five occasions and prevented its progress. It has also conducted the usual tactics of sniping and sneak attacks.

The factors that help the LTTE are its landmine technology, recent acquisition of long range artillery and motivation. For the LTTE, control of the Wanni region is of major importance. LTTE chief Prabakaran used his suicide squad in the Wanni defence. It is astonishing that the LTTE, with its inferior numbers, has resisted the army in positional warfare for so long. At one stage the LTTE was containing the army on four diverse fronts.

Operation Jayasikuru has not met its deadlines. The Government would like the operation to be over before February 4, 1998, when Sri Lanka observes the 50th anniversary of its Independence. But it is very unlikely that that will happen.

Given this fierce resistance of the LTTE, it is also not clear whether the army can retain the areas that it captured in this operation.

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