Another LTTE offensive

Published : Apr 15, 2000 00:00 IST

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam launches a multi-pronged attack on Sri Lankan military installations in the Jaffna peninsula.


LARGE-SCALE fighting has erupted again in the predominantly Tamil Jaffna peninsula in the north of Sri Lanka. The latest confrontation began around midnight on March 26 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched a multi-pronged offensive o n military installations in the peninsula. For the people of Sri Lanka, factual news about the situation is hard to come by owing to the censorship in force. On the other hand, news reports in the print, electronic, audio and visual Tamil media outlets a broad, along with information gained over the telephone from informed sources in Jaffna, provide an insight into the LTTE's war strategy in the peninsula and related developments.

The LTTE is adopting a different military strategy in the peninsula (see "Tactical shift", Frontline, January 7, 2000). The prize targets are Jaffna town and the Elephant Pass military complex. There are four underlying principles beneath the curr ent strategy.

First, the LTTE does not want a repeat of the fiasco of 1991 when it attacked the Elephant Pass camp directly, and is avoiding an all-out onslaught. Second, the Tigers are looking to cut off all access and supply routes to the Elephant Pass isthmus and s trangulate the forces stationed there. Third, the LTTE had already entered the peninsula through points in the eastern and southern coasts and established entrenched positions that the Army has been unable to demolish; it now seeks to extend these positi ons further. Fourth, the Tigers are keeping in reserve a large contingent on the northern mainland, which could be deployed to capture Jaffna town.

What is unfolding in the peninsula is stage four of the third phase of "Operation Oyatha Alaigal" (Unceasing Waves). The first phase was in Mullaitheevu in July 1996, and the second in Kilinochchi in September 1998. In the third phase, the first stage wa s played out in the eastern sector of the northern mainland of the Wanni and the second stage in the western sector; both happened in November 1999. The third stage was launched in December 1999 and was focussed on the southern, southeastern and eastern flanks of the peninsula.

The LTTE began occupying the coastal areas of Vettilaikerny, Kattaikkadu, Aaliyawalai, Uduthurai, Mulliyan, Thattuvaankoddi and Nallathannithoduvaai in the southeastern sector of the peninsula. It also seized Pullaveli to the north of Elephant Pass and K urinchatheevu to the west of the Pass. It had earlier taken Paranthan and Umaiaalpuram to the south of the Pass, on the northern mainland.

Consequently, Elephant Pass was encircled on almost all sides and all access and supply routes were cut off - except for Iyakkachi to its north. The LTTE siege of Elephant Pass in 1991 was broken only by establishing a beachhead in the Vettilaikerny-Katt aikkaadu region. Subsequently, permanent camps were set up to ensure smooth supplies by the sea route. Prior to the current round of fighting, the Iyakkachi camp, along a bend on the strategic A 9 Highway, served as the gateway to Elephant Pass. Supplies came by road from Jaffna via the Kandy road.

The LTTE has also established fixed positions on the southwestern sectors of the peninsula - in east Ariyalai, Koilakkandy, Thanankilappu and Keratheevu. Boats plying the Jaffna lagoon from the Pooneryn, Nagathevanthurai and Sangupiddy areas of the mainl and serve a logistical purpose. A battery of long-range artillery guns maintained on the Pooneryn coast fire intermittently across the lagoon into the Thenmaratchy sector of the peninsula. A key focus is Kilaly on the southwestern coast of the peninsula. Between 1990 and 1995, when the LTTE was in control of Jaffna, the Kilaly ferry was for long the transit point for persons entering and exiting from the peninsula.

In response to the "creeping advantage" that the Tigers were gaining in the peninsula, Colombo stationed the entire 54 Division in the Elephant Pass sector. More important, the elite 53 Division, which consists of crack commando forces trained in Pakista n and in the United States and the special air brigade, was deployed on the east coast of the peninsula. This division was in the vanguard of successful military operations in Jaffna during 1995-96 and in the Wanni in 1997-98. Further, Colombo newspapers quoting military intelligence sources warned of a heavy build-up by the LTTE in the mainland areas south of the peninsula. Apparently, the armed forces were planning a major operation aimed at recapturing LTTE-held areas in the peninsula and the mainlan d when the LTTE struck. News reports indicate that the LTTE pre-empted an attack by the armed forces by some 48 hours.

AROUND midnight on March 26, LTTE cadres infiltrated military lines and launched a commando-type raid on an artillery installation and ammunition dump in the general area of Pallai, which is a key junction to the north of Elephant Pass on the Jaffna-Kand y road. At least 11 pieces of artillery were decommissioned. The artillery points, installed in a fan-like formation, controlled the roadway beyond Pallai on the A 9 Highway. This operation was conducted by squads of the LTTE commando division known as " Siruthai" (Leopard).

At about the same time, LTTE cadres also seized strategic points on the Jaffna-Kandy road. LTTE pickets were established to the north of Pallai in Muhamalai, Indrapuram and Ithavil. The LTTE has taken over an area 4.5 kilometres long and 1.5 km wide, ent renched itself in this swathe and fortified its positions. If the Tigers are able to hold on to this position, no road transport is possible along this road from Iyakkachi and Elephant Pass to Jaffna. That the Tigers perceive a big strategic value in thi s is clear from the fact that Balraj, their deputy military chief who is second only to Velupillai Prabakaran in the LTTE hierarchy, is leading them in this area.

The Sri Lankan armed forces are trying hard to dislodge the LTTE from this position. There have been frequent exchanges of artillery fire. At least two offensives led by the armoured and mechanical divisions have been conducted and the LTTE has withstood both these. The Tigers also claim to have captured two South African-made "Buffel" tanks and three armoured cars and destroyed two tanks and five armoured cars. The LTTE has established an artillery division named after former Jaffna commander Kittu and is putting together an armoured division named Victor after the former "commander" of Mannar. Bhanu, former commander of Jaffna and Mannar, is in charge of both of these and assists Balraj.

The armed forces have been forced to take a circuitous route - turning west from Pallai, and passing through Puloppalai and Kilaly and proceeding by the southwestern coast to Kachai and then heading east to the Jaffna-Kandy road at Kodikamam. However, th ere are reports that LTTE artillery is pounding the Kilaly-Kachai-Kodikamam area. All passenger traffic has been stopped along the Jaffna-Kandy road from the south of Chavakachcheri. One can conclude from this that the Army's land route to Elephant Pass is now under pressure.

Owing to the ban on civilian traffic, more than 15,000 displaced persons who wish to flee the battle zone are trapped. In addition, all governmental work and activities by non-governmental organisations have come to a standstill. A serious humanitarian c risis is brewing: the displaced persons do not have access to adequate food, shelter and medicines. The Catholic Church meets some of these needs, but it does not have enough resources. Meanwhile, Tiger propagandists are accusing the troops of deliberate ly restricting civilian movement in the war zone so as to utilise them as human shields or buffers.

THE Iyakkachi camp and the Elephant Pass complex too are under attack. LTTE cadres have kept up an artillery barrage and have both the camps under virtual siege from points to the north and northeast of Iyakkachi in Sangathaar Vayal and Kovil Vayal and p oints in the southeast of Elephant Pass at Thattuvankotti and to the west at Kurinchatheevu. Consequently, although the LTTE has not conducted a direct assault, Elephant Pass and Iyakkachi are marooned, and will remain so - unless the military balance in these areas changes dramatically.

Even as the attacks in the Pallai-Muhamalai area were launched on March 26, LTTE cadres initiated a number of attacks on points along the east coast. The east coast, known as the Vadamaratchy East division, extends about 30 km from Point Pedro to Thalaia dy, bounded on one side by the sea and on the other by the Jaffna lagoon. It is sparsely populated, and fishing is the primary means of livelihood.

LTTE cadres launched their attack from Nelliyan, a tiny hamlet in the interior to the west of Thalaiady. A ferocious attack was unleashed on the military complex of Thalaiady-Maruthankerni-Chembianpattru. Chembianpattru is about 2 km north of Thalaiady; Maruthankerni is less than a kilometre to its west. The three make up the vertices of a triangle that includes a military complex that served as the operational headquarters of the 53 Division. Fighting erupted also on the Soranpattru-Maasaar areas on th e road going west from Maruthankerni to join the Jaffna-Kandy road at the Puthukkaadu junction.

Simultaneously, other Tiger groups attacked the camp on Maamunai and Amban further north along the coast between Chembianpattru and Nagarkovil. Official press releases stated that in the face of the LTTE attacks, the armed forces withdrew - first from th e smaller Amban camp, then from the larger Maamunai camp and finally from the massive complex at Thalaiady-Maruthankerny-Chembianpattru. Acco-rding to official communiques, the Army is repositioning itself: it is abandoning the coastal strip and reinforc ing positions in the interior to the west of the lagoon. This strategy is aimed at containing LTTE encroachment in the interior areas.

As a result, the LTTE is now in control of the eastern coast up to Kudarappu to the south of Nagarkovil. It has taken new territory stretching to about 14 km. There are, however, three other camps - in Nagarkovil, Manalkaadu and Vallipuram - along this c oast between the LTTE positions and Point Pedro, the northernmost point of the peninsula. Women cadres of the LTTE's Sothiya brigade now hold the newly taken areas on the east coast.

The attack was a joint operation undertaken by the Charles Anthony infantry division and the Sea Tigers division. Tiger cadres were ferried by sea from Challai on the Mullaitheevu coast, which was under LTTE control, and dropped off at points between Nag arkovil and Vettilaikerny, including Chembianpattru and Thalaiady. The Sea Tigers were led by Veerendran and the land-based cadres by Vasanthan, of whom little is known.

While these attacks were on, Theepan, LTTE commander in the Kilinochchi area, led about 400 cadres on foot across the Chundikulam lagoon (which is now marshy) in the southeast of the peninsula. These cadres enhanced the Tiger presence in the south and so utheast of the peninsula and launched an attack on Army positions in the Vathirayan area to the west of Vettilaikerny and east of Elephant Pass.

The armed forces have put up stiff resistance. If the Tigers break through beyond Vathirayan, Elephant Pass is likely to be assailed from another point. But since the LTTE now controls the eastern seaboard from Kokkuthoduvaai in Mulaitheevu district on t he mainland to Kudaarappu on the Jaffna peninsula, it is no longer dependent on the sea route. Except during the monsoon season, the Chundikulam lagoon can be crossed on foot.

The British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) Tamil service on the radio, Tamil Osai, has meanwhile drawn attention to other serious developments. It reported that some Army positions in the interior of Kudathanai, Mulli, Kodikamam, Manthuvil and Varani a reas had been vacated and the personnel redeployed. This, according to the BBC, means that the Tigers can circumvent Army positions by taking a circuitous path by the lagoon shore and proceed to places such as Anthanathidal, Kappoothu, Mattuvil and Vadha ravathai without facing the Army anywhere. Given the geography of the peninsula, particularly the porous lagoon, the Tigers can reach the Vadamaratchy and Thenmaratchy areas and certain parts of the Valigamamam sector through this route.

The LTTE also attempted to cross the lagoon and seize Kilaly on the southwest, but the armed forces have repulsed them. The LTTE's objective appears to be to seize the Maruthankerny-Puthukkaadu road on the east of the A 9 Highway and the Pallai-Puloppala i-Kilaly road on the west while holding on to its positions on the Jaffna-Kandy road. If it does this, it will have succeeded in bisecting the lower portion of the peninsula and trapping the troops at the Elephant Pass and Iyakkachi garrisons. At the sam e time it persists with its strategy to encircle the troops without attacking Elephant Pass directly.

A significant aspect of the current phase of fighting is the LTTE's excessive reliance on long-range artillery. It is stated that only a force of around 1,500 cadres is used for direct combat in the peninsula. These cadres have been drawn from the infant ry, commando, artillery and armoured divisions as also the women's brigades and the Sea Tigers. As is customary whenever the Tigers are militarily successful, the LTTE propaganda machinery abroad claims that the overall strategy was drawn up by Prabakara n.

Of great concern to the Sri Lankan Government is the view that is gaining ground that the Tigers are planning to attack Jaffna shortly. LTTE ideologue and political adviser Anton Balasingham stated in an interview to the pro-LTTE fortnightly Tamil Gua rdian that the Tigers would soon be at the gates of Jaffna town, the cultural capital of Sri Lankan Tamils. Reports from Sri Lankan intelligence agencies have reinforced Colombo's apprehensions.

These reports state that LTTE cadres are being ferried into the peninsula from Sangupiddy to Keratheevu. And, armaments are being stockpiled in Thanankilappu and East Arialai on the peninsula, evidently in anticipation of a massive military operation. It is also stated that senior military commander Karuna alias Karuna Amman is waiting along with about 1,000 cadres on the mainland coast adjacent to the peninsula. Colombo's fear is that the LTTE may use Thanankilappu or Ariyalai as a launch-pad for onsla ughts on Chavakachcheri or Jaffna town or both. Even if the Tigers cannot capture Jaffna at present, a lightning raid can inflict military, political and psychological damage.

While the current round of fighting seems to be centred on Elephant Pass, one cannot rule out a surprise twist to events. Given its established positions in the peninsula, the LTTE is capable of changing course and targeting Jaffna town, Chavakachcheri o r Point Pedro. Colombo knows that even if the LTTE cannot seize these places, it would have scored a symbolic and psychological victory merely by launching an attack, particularly if it targets Jaffna. When it lost Jaffna, the LTTE suffered a loss of fac e. According to Tiger sources, Prabakaran has vowed that the Tigers will be in Jaffna by the end of this year.

As compared to Jaffna, Elephant Pass is not vital for the LTTE because although it is the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, it has never been under LTTE control. Even when the LTTE retained control over much of the peninsula and the northern mainland, Ele phant Pass was not in its grasp. Nor was it militarily significant. Further, the terrain around the Elephant Pass camp does not support an all-out attack or a direct siege, a lesson learnt in 1991 when the LTTE launched Operation Tharai Kadal Aahayam (La nd Sea Air). It is possible, therefore, that Prabakaran may seek to take Jaffna rather than Elephant Pass. His current strategy of strangulating the camp may be a protracted but relatively practical course. But the fall of either Jaffna or Elephant Pass would be demoralising to the armed forces.

On the other hand, despite LTTE successes and claims, the armed forces cannot be written off, on account of two factors. One is that the number of LTTE cadres in the peninsula is dangerously low and even these are sandwiched between the 54 Division (Elep hant Pass) and the 53 Division (Pachilaipalli) in one sector and the 51 Division (Vadamaratchy) and 52 Division (Thenmaratchy) in others. The numbers are against the LTTE.

Second, the advantage of an air force is palpable, and here the LTTE suffers. The current exercise has witnessed incessant aerial bombardment and shelling by the Air Force. A number of LTTE boats have been destroyed and expeditions foiled. Further, given the situation on the ground and at sea, the skies have considerable logistical importance for the armed forces. The LTTE's anti-aircraft wing, led by Shankar, has attempted to counter the Air Force with missiles and .50-calibre long-range guns, but the air advantage has enabled Colombo to contain the LTTE to an extent.

(On March 30, a military transport plane crashed near Anuradhapura town in northcentral Sri Lanka, killing 36 security personnel and the crew of four. The Antonov-26 aircraft was transporting troops out of Jaffna; it was owned by a private company and ch artered by the Air Force which is hardpressed for planes to maintain an air bridge to the peninsula. Initial reports blamed the crash on "technical failure", but the Government has appointed a four-member committee comprising defence personnel to investi gate the cause. The Air Force also suspended civilian flights from the peninsula following the crash.)

President Chandrika Kumaratunga is in an unenviable position as she sees her war-for-peace strategy crumbling. Yet she perseveres and keeps herself informed of battlefront developments round the clock. After a recent meeting of the emergency war council, she instructed the three Service chiefs to relocate to the Palaly base in Jaffna until the current LTTE advance is halted. "Stay in Jaffna and do your duty," was her crisp command. Kumaratunga has also gone on record that there would be no ceasefire or withdrawal of troops from Jaffna "even if the LTTE kills me".

After 10 days of fighting, the LTTE said that about 100 of its cadres had been killed. The Defence Ministry said that around 200 of its men were killed or were missing in action, and that nearly a 1,000 others had been injured. Unofficial estimates of th e casualty figures on both sides are considerably high. Predictably, each side exaggerated the casualty figures in respect of the other.

The current LTTE offensive comes at a time when a peace initiative has been undertaken with Norway acting as a facilitator (Frontline, March 17, 2000 ). As a prelude to talks, the LTTE wanted a ceasefire to be put in place and the armed forces in Jaffna confined to the barracks. The government, however, did not agree to this. Colombo ruled out a ceasefire, but said that it would consider a gradual troops withdrawal after talks started. It was then that the LTTE launched its attack.

Although the fighting rages, how long it will last and what course the conflict will take will depend on the LTTE's ability to sustain its current drive, particularly its ability to maintain its artillery barrage. Reports from the warfront state that the LTTE is able to fire artillery regularly and intensely. On the other hand, the ability of the armed forces to take effective countermeasures will also have a bearing. It seems likely that the conflict will be a prolonged one, with intermittent lulls nec essitated by logistical requirements.

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