The fall of Elephant Pass

Published : Apr 29, 2000 00:00 IST

With the capture of Elephant Pass, Sri Lanka's most fortified Army Camp, the LTTE appears to have won a crucial victory in the battle for Jaffna.

THE end-game in Sri Lanka's protracted separatist war seems to have started. The 'ever-in-flux' military map of the island-nation underwent its most drastic change this April, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took control of the once-imp regnable Elephant Pass military complex.

What was considered the most fortified military camp in the island the government troops virtually gave away even as an impending siege loomed large on the complex. "It is a repeat of the Vanni," a top Army officer told Frontline, indicating that the Army had pulled out of the northern garrison as it did in the face of a series of LTTE advances in the Vanni last year.

On April 22, the Tigers moved into the twin complexes of Iyakachchi and Elephant Pass, pounding the government positions even as the government troops made a "tactical withdrawal" for "readjusting their defence lines". Unfortunately for the Sri Lankan de fence apparatus, it could well turn out to be a "readjustment" which changes the military balance very significantly in favour of the LTTE. Retaking Elephant Pass, heavily fortified and with concrete bunkers capable of withstanding bombing, is going to b e a difficult task for the security forces. The sprawling complex was a key bulwark for government troops in countering the military aggression of the LTTE. Terrestrial incursions into the peninsula from the mainland were consistently thwarted by the ove rwhelming presence of two top divisions of the Sri Lankan Army in the Iyakachchi-Elephant Pass sector.

Elephant Pass, referred to as EPS in the jargon of the military conflict, was the most talked-about complex. Any discussion on the progress of the conflict would invariably veer round to EPS. "As long as EPS holds, the Tigers would find it difficult... T he Tigers can't get past EPS...If EPS falls, the war is done for..." were oft-repeated theories voiced by military observers. And, of course, "a bloody battle over EPS" was the scenario most expected.

As it happened, the LTTE made the EPS takeover simple and straight. Rather than flush out the camp by employing its earlier tactics of deploying suicide-cadres on the camp boundaries, followed by an intense attack, the Tigers got EPS without even gettin g close to its boundaries. For the Army made a pull-out to "save its troops for a later attack."

The Mullaitivu model of overrunning an Army camp has clearly become passe. Indicating both a change in tactics and, at a larger level, a change in the very nature of the armed conflict, the Tigers lay siege on military positions north of the EPS. Supply lines were cut off and a slow choking of the base was in prospect when the northern road link from Iyakachchi to government-held Jaffna was cut away. An alternative supply route was opened, but military sources said that could at best be temporary.

In terms of the nature of the warfare, the situation has changed significantly since the early 1990s with the weapons that lead to a stand-off turning to be crucial. Once an army position came within the LTTE's artillery range, the situation turned probl ematic. As the security forces exceed the rebels in sheer numbers, the losses are also significantly higher on the government side for every successful strike by the Tigers.

A stunned Sri Lankan defence establishment maintained a deafening silence on the Elephant Pass debacle on April 22. A day later, the silence was shattered by a communique from the Defence Ministry which said "heavy fighting was on" in the sector and that the troops had "readjusted defence lines north of Elephant Pass" and "vacated" the southern sector. Not much reading between the lines was required - Elephant Pass had moved into LTTE control.

The Tigers proclaimed their victory as one "facilitating the LTTE to gain its strategic goal of liberating Jaffna." In a statement released through their international headquarters in London on April 22, the rebels said: "The LTTE's Special Forces and co mmando units stormed into the Yakachchi (sic) military base in early hours of the morning in a multi-pronged assault and overran the well-fortified camp after several hours of intense fighting. The LTTE commandos, who penetrated central base, destroyed s everal artillery pieces, tanks, armoured vehicles and ammunition dumps. Overwhelmed by the fury of the Tiger assault, the Sri Lankan troops who desperately held the base without supplies and reinforcements for the last two days fled in total confusion."

"With the fall of Yakachchi and with the collapse of the command structure of its defending troops, the LTTE combat units moved swiftly and stormed into Elephant Pass from different directions. Unable to withstand the LTTE's multi-pronged assault, the Sr i Lankan troops ran amok in chaos. The majority of the soldiers of the 54 Division fled through Kilali lagoon in the midst of heavy fire from LTTE fighters suffering heavy casualties."

At a press conference addressed by the Army, Navy and Air Force bosses, the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Sirilal Weerasooriya, expressed the confidence that they would hold the peninsula from further LTTE advances. Chief of the Army Staff Maj. Gen. Lionel Ba lagalle said that while Elephant Pass was "certainly an important location as far as Jaffna is concerned, it was not the only location to put our defences."

Making it clear that holding Jaffna peninsula was the Army's priority, Lt.Gen. Weerasooriya said: "We have to ensure that the LTTE is not able to get Jaffna now." Placing the onus on the over four lakh civilians in Jaffna as well, the Army Commander said that they would have to "weigh the pros and cons" of their conditions before 1995, when the Tigers' writ ran across Jaffna, and after 1995, when the Army wrested control over the peninsula and "restored electricity and other essential services."

On the rationale for ordering the Army pull-out from Elephant Pass, the Commander said that the withdrawal occurred in the face of an impending siege of the complex by the guerrillas. "It is better to save our forces and use it later," he said. Earlier, the LTTE had taken control over the Iyakachchi camp just north of Elephant Pass, and given the fire-power of the Tigers the presence of troops would have resulted in heavy casualties, it was reasoned.

There are conflicting versions on the military hardware that has fallen into the LTTE's hands. Informed sources in Vavuniya, quoting the clandestine Voice of Tigers, said that the Tigers' list of armaments included five artillery guns - three 152mm guns and two 122 mm guns. Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya, however, said that "only one gun was lost to the Tigers". The other guns were "disabled" by the troops withdrawing from Elephant Pass, he said.

Popular reaction to the reversal faced by the security forces is predictably varied. Muted silence and disbelief in the Sinhala-majority south contrasted with passive enthusiasm in the Tamil-majority areas in the north and east. "In the areas held by the Tigers they would be celebrating," informed sources in government-held eastern Batticaloa district said.

Some political observers feel that the time is right for the government to call for a cessation of hostilities and look beyond military gains and losses. The reasoning here is that sustained militarisation would only make the conflict drag on. The Sinhal a hardliners, who have been calling for an escalation of the military offensive, did not immediately react to the Elephant Pass reversal.

Describing the Elephant Pass development a "national disaster" The Island newspaper said in a hard-hitting editorial: "Whatever the military euphemisms that were is apparent that it is the biggest military debacle Sri Lankan forces have faced in the 18-year-old conflict." The State-run newspapers were yet to comment editorially on the situation.

In the face of the reverse, the military said it would "change its tactics" to counter the advances made by the Tigers and prevent them from taking Jaffna. However, apart from saying that firepower would be stepped up to counter the LTTE's mortar assault s, the Army bosses did not disclose any details of a changed course. He said that according to intelligence reports, the LTTE used in the Elephant Pass offensive eight 60 mm mortars, one 122 mm gun, multiple-barrel rocket launchers and one 144mm gun.

"Militarily, ups and downs are there," the Army commander, who ordered the pull-out on April 21 said. "As far as we are concerned, we have lost a few kilometres." On the possible future course of the northern battles, which have been raging with increase d intensity since end-March, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya merely said: "We have to contain the LTTE's firepower."

A routine court of inquiry will undoubtedly take stock of the situation. Fresh recruitment to the Army, which faces the twin problems of manpower shortage and desertion, is also scheduled for mid-May. On the frequently raised issue of conscription, the A rmy chief said that it was a decision to be taken by the policy-makers.

On the number of battle casualties, he denied LTTE claims of over 1,000 soldiers killed and said that in a single day's battle, 88 soldiers were killed and "less than 100 missing in action" on April 21. The Army chief said that "only one division," which was maintained at the Elephant Pass complex, was withdrawn.

From being a stretch of shallow waters that separated northern Jaffna from the rest of the island in pre-colonial days, Elephant Pass has come a long way. It evolved into the military epicentre of the separatist war. The shallow waters through which elep hants were once used to carry goods into the Jaffna peninsula, giving it the name Elephant Pass, have been a silent witness to the ebbs and flow of the northern conflict.

Elephant Pass, the terrestrial gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, is now under the control of the Tigers. The development is all set to change the military course of the whole conflict.

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