Cornered Tigers

Published : Jan 30, 2009 00:00 IST

in Kilinochchi, Paranthan and Colombo

EVER heard of an engineered, programmed and designed earthquake, cyclone or tsunami? The idea sounds ridiculous and funny. However, that is perhaps the only way to describe the scenes in Kilinochchi town, the administrative and political capital of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) since it lost Jaffna in 1995, hours after it fell into the hands of the Sri Lankan military on the morning of January 2.

For the small media group that the Sri Lanka Defence Ministry had flown from Colombo to Kilinochchi and the adjoining Paranthan town on the morning of January 4, the spectacle there was beyond belief. Kilinochchi was described as a ghost town for several weeks before the military actually took control of it. All it suggested was that except for the hardcore LTTE fighters who stayed put to halt the march of the military, the town was deserted.

The six-hour visit of the media team showed that it was not just the civilians who had disappeared from the bustling town, supposedly home to an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people. (Sri Lanka has not been able to hold a national census since 1981 because of the ethnic conflict, and the projection of populations in the north and parts of the east is based on assumptions.) It was evident that even as the Tigers were trying their best to stop the military from entering Kilinochchi for at least one and a half months, they were engaged simultaneously in the task of dismantling the entire infrastructure of the town.

Everything that could be ripped off was taken out neatly and carted away. That included even electrical fittings such as switches, regulators and bulbs, and asbestos roofs, doors and windows of every house and establishment in the town. Kilinochchi, stretching in length to eight kilometres and spread across the A-9 highway, is one of the longest towns in Sri Lanka. So, it would have taken the LTTE a minimum of four to five weeks to unscrew all that could be bundled and packed and to take them away.

The civil and administrative infrastructure which could not be carted away was destroyed. The citys main water tank, which was 40 feet long, was blasted to pieces, presumably with the help of high-powered explosives, and the wires that supplied power to the city were slashed. Sri Lankan military officials believe that the fleeing Tigers must have wound the copper wires and parcelled them to their hideouts in the thick jungles of Mullaithivu district, the last remaining stronghold of the Tigers.

When the military descended on Kilinochchi in the early hours of January 2, not a soul was living there. Going by the accounts of the LTTE, the civilians of the town had fled much before the military reached there. The only trace of life in the town amid the rumble of military trucks and the movement of men in uniform were a few stray dogs and cows.

Interestingly, the LTTE left its own administrative and political headquarters and the peace secretariat untouched. The commandos of the Sri Lankan military who reached the three-storeyed administrative headquarters of the Tigers were surprised to find the structure with its impressive doors and windows intact. Its main door was left slightly ajar with the key on it.

Once inside, the military personnel were in for a shock. All the three floors of the buildings had been emptied out and the floors were shining. It was as if a tenant had vacated a house and vacuumed it thoroughly for the benefit of the new tenant, an officer who was one of the first to reach the site told Frontline.

It was the same story vis-a-vis all other concrete buildings from where different administrative and political wings of the Tigers functioned in the town. There was not even a shred of a paper. Pointing to stray dogs in the compound, an officer commented wryly, They were with the Tigers until the other day, and now they have switched sides. True, there is a communication problem, but we will overcome it soon.

Such mass evacuation is certainly not a novel idea in the context of wars. In military terminology it is known as scorched earth policy, which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from an area. The term originally referred to the practice of burning crops to deny the enemy food sources. In its modern usage, it includes the destruction of shelter, transportation, communications and industrial resources.

There have been instances in the history of wars where the retreating armies have resorted to scorched earth policy. However, it is doubtful if there has been any other instance of a systematic dismantling of civil and administrative infrastructure on such a large scale as was evident in Kilinochchi. The task could have been particularly daunting considering the fact that the Tigers were cornered virtually from all sides for weeks and were faced with numerous aerial bombardments.

However, the success of the LTTE in disfiguring Kilinochchi town beyond recognition does not take away the focus from the enormity and significance of the Sri Lanka militarys march into the town. In the ongoing Eelam War IV, Kilinochchi meant everything to the Tigers. It lent some degree of credence to its oft-repeated claim as an organisation with an administrative capital of its own and as the sole representative of the Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Militarily, it was a test case of defending itself from the all-out war launched by the Sri Lankan forces. So confident was the LTTE about its invincibility in Kilinochchi that in the last week of November, in an e-mail interview to a Tamil magazine, LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakaran declared that capturing Kilinochchi was a day dream of [Sri Lankan President] Rajapaksa.

It is not immediately clear if the LTTE supremo was banking on the military ability of his outfit to defend Kilinochchi at all cost or on external help. Incidentally, Prabakarans interview appeared at a juncture when the Tigers and their contacts in Tamil Nadu were mounting a full-throated campaign seeking the intervention of New Delhi for a ceasefire. However, his calculations proved wrong and Rajapaksas day dream turned into a nightmare for Prabakaran. By all accounts, the loss of Kilinochchi is a devastating blow to the LTTE.

The Sri Lanka forces had gained and lost control of Kilinochchi just over a decade ago. It fell into the hands of the military in 1996 before the LTTE took it back in 1998. The fall of Kilinochchi now is the culmination of a systematic and arduous military campaign that lasted over 20 months. None of the previous campaigns of the Sri Lanka military since the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in early 1990 was aimed at the complete elimination of the Tigers from the Wanni.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa government made the decision to eliminate the LTTE militarily after the Tigers closed the sluice gates of Maavilaru in the east on July 21, 2006. That was the beginning of the current phase of hostilities. The green signal was given to the military to prepare itself for a fight to the finish. Sri Lanka Army Chief Sarath Fonseka, who nearly lost his life in a suicide bomb attack by an LTTE cadre in April 2006, drew up a grand plan to oust the Tigers from the east first and then take the war into the heartland of the LTTE in the Wanni in the north. Thus was born in February 2007 the 57 Division in the Sri Lanka Army with the explicit mandate to advance in a methodical manner from the west of Vavuniya into the LTTE strongholds. The move was made even as the army was engaged in ousting the Tigers from their remaining bases in the eastern province. After pitched battles, the east was liberated in July 2007, and elections were held for the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) in May 2008. Despite the deficiencies in the EPCs functioning and the faction fight in the rebel Tiger outfit, Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal, the LTTE has not been able to regain the bases it lost in the east nearly one and a half years ago.

Seven months after the establishment of 57 Division, Fonseka created Task Force 1 (now elevated to the status of 58 Division) with the directive to march along the Mannar-Pooneryn (A-32) road. The 57 and 58 Divisions together traversed a territory of 63 and 82 km respectively before closing in on Kilinochchi.

The brief to the troops was to cause maximum attrition to the LTTE in terms of its human resource and infrastructure. In other words, the orders were to kill as many Tiger cadre as possible and decimate the LTTEs military infrastructure. The troops literally crawled their way through fierce resistance from the Tigers and adverse weather. They had to neutralise the LTTE bases, beginning in the west of Vavuniya and the Mannar rice bowl.

Wiser from past mistakes, the troops operated in small batches of four to eight personnel and avoided battalion marches into possible Tiger traps. The territorial gains have indeed been impressive. The areas wrested from the LTTE by the troops of 57 Division include the Madhu Church complex, the towns of Palampiddi, Thunukkai, Uilankulam, Mallavi, Terumurikandy and the Iranamdu junction.

The battle path of 58 Division along A-32, running along the coastal belt, was considered to be of high strategic importance as it connects the LTTEs main sea supply route across the Palk Strait. Some of the important areas taken from the LTTE by the division include Adampan, Andankulama, Parappakadattan, Vellankulama, Nachchikudha, Manniyankulama, Chempankundu, Devils Point, Pooneryn and Sinna-Paranthan.

The vast area captured by the two divisions provides a glimpse into the nature of the tortuous military campaign. 57 Division claims to have captured 1,624 square km so far. Its troops reported the death of 4,974 LTTE cadre. The 58 Division troops confirmed the death of over 2,000 Tiger cadre. In the absence of any independent mechanism, it is not possible to verify the claims.

The picture is complicated further by the fact that the total number of bodies of LTTE cadre handed over by the two divisions to the International Red Cross Committee was below 600. The military insists that at least 10 LTTE members were killed for every soldier killed. While it is difficult to hazard a guess on the numbers of those killed in the battle, the LTTEs desperate efforts for over a year to forcibly recruit cadre (according to the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) reports on the Wanni) make it evident that the Tigers have suffered heavy casualties.

There are no credible estimates of the losses suffered by the military either. However, a crucial difference between the capacities of the Sri Lanka military and the LTTE to deal with manpower losses is that the three wings of the Sri Lanka military together account for over 200,000 personnel and, as per the estimates of military intelligence, the number of Tiger cadre post-Kilinochchi is down to less than 2,000. The military believes it has killed at least 14,000 LTTE fighters in Eelam War IV. But more significant than the number of cadre killed is the loss of territory all round. As a result, the Tigers have no place to run to. They are now believed to be confined mainly to Mullaithivu, spread over nearly 45 sq km.

Kilinochchi proved to be toughest for the troops in their entire campaign until date. In the last phase, it took over one and a half months for the troops to gain entry into the town. Torrential rains also partly helped the Tigers. As the troops neared the town sometime in the last week of November, the Tigers raised a ditch-cum-wall stretching 40 km from Kilaly to Kilinochchi. The military was surprised by the capacity of the Tigers to raise such an obstacle, measuring at places up to 12 to 15 feet. They kept raising new earthen walls as the military moved in from different directions.

The LTTE could not have raised such a ditch and earth wall without heavy machinery and the manual labour of thousands of people. We are sure thousands of civilians must have been deployed for the job for weeks, Lt. Gen. Jagath Dias, who commanded 57 Division, told the visiting journalists in Kilinochchi.

It is remarkable on the part of the military to have won Kilinochchi with virtually no harm to civilians. In the build-up to the battle, the government had repeatedly accused the Tigers of holding civilians as hostages. Though the whereabouts of civilians in the Tiger-controlled areas that fell into the hands of the military remains a mystery, there is nothing to suggest that the LTTE has forcibly moved ordinary citizens as it retreated in the face of advancing forces.

Understandably, President Rajapaksa was upbeat over the fall of Kilinochchi. In a special address to the people of the island nation, telecast by the state television, he remarked that the capture of Kilinochchi was not his dream alone as had been suggested by Prabakaran.

It was the constant dream of all Sri Lankans, whether Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, who are opposed to separatism, racism and terrorism, and have always sought peace, freedom and democracy. Today our heroic troops have made that dream a reality, the President said.

In carefully chosen words, Rajapaksa said that the victory of the forces should not be belittled as the triumph of one community or one region over another. It should not be interpreted as the defeat of the north by the south. This is a victory for the entire nation. It is a decisive victory over savage terrorism that was playing around with the blood, muscle and sinews of humans. It is a victory over venomous separatism that sought to divide people on grounds of race and religion.

Rajapaksas assertion that the capture of Kilinochchi marked a major victory in the worlds battle against terrorism is to be seen in the context of the fact that the LTTE is either banned in several countries or is on the watch list of several others. Incidentally, on January 7, Sri Lanka became the 31st country to proscribe the LTTE. The Sri Lankan government had lifted the ban on the Tigers following the Cease Fire Agreement brokered by the Norwegian government in February 2002.

In a briefing to Colombo-based diplomatic core, Sri Lankas Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama argued that the ban on the Tigers would enable the authentic voices of the Tamil people in the country to be heard for the first time without being subjected to violent suppression by the LTTE. But in real terms, the ban may not mean much.

The biggest challenge before the Rajapaksa government now is to ensure the safety of the civilians trapped in the war zone and take care of their needs. No one has the precise number of the displaced, leave alone their locations. The stranded citizens would become more vulnerable than before with the shrinking territory of the Tigers and the hunt by the Sri Lankan military to flush them out from their hideouts.

After the victory in Kilinochchi, the military is all set to zero in on the bases of the Tigers in Elephant Pass and Muhamalai across the Jaffna peninsula. It is a matter of time before the cadre of the LTTE are confined to the jungles in Mullaithivu, the only district where the Tigers continue to dominate.

The LTTE would most likely return to guerilla tactics and trademark human bomb attacks. This was evident in the suicide explosion outside the Sri Lanka Air Force Headquarters, hours after the LTTE was ousted from Kilinochchi.

In the medium and long term, it is imperative on the part of the government to address the legitimate grievances of the minorities and generate a consensus for a political solution to the ethnic conflict. Otherwise the hard-earned military gains might vanish into thin air.

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