Tactical shift

Print edition : December 25, 2000

THE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began a long expected offensive against military positions in the Jaffna peninsula on December 10. As the fighting progressed, it became apparent that the LTTE's war strategy for the peninsula was different fro m its earlier tactics that proved successful in the northern mainland of Wanni. Instead of launching all-out and frontal attacks on premier military installations, the Tigers seemed to be engaging in piecemeal operations that had the cumulative effect of gradually undermining key targets.

The Jaffna peninsula's chief link with the mainland is the isthmus known as Elephant Pass. After a highway and a railway line were constructed during British rule, Elephant Pass assumed importance as the road as well as the rail line to and from the peni nsula passed through this narrow strip. The military camp at Elephant Pass gained strategic importance after the conflict escalated, as its location enabled the control of all ground transport to Jaffna.

In 1991, the Tigers conducted a full-fledged onslaught, named "Operation Tharai, Kadal, Aahayam" (Land, Sea, Air), to capture the Elephant Pass camp. Although the camp was besieged for several weeks, the LTTE failed in its bid because the Army succeeded in establishing a beachhead at Vettrilaikerni on the southeastern coast of the peninsula and sent in reinforcements. The Army's counter-offensive was called "Balavegaya" (force). The LTTE suffered over 600 casualties and was beaten back.

Realising the strategic importance of Elephant Pass, the security forces expanded the Elephant Pass camp into a gigantic base complex. Two big camps were established at Vettrilaikerni along the coast and adjacent Kattaikaadu to the interior. The main cam p itself was enlarged through the acquisition of buildings and the area belonging to the once flourishing Elephant Pass Salterns. Midway between Vettrilaikerni and Elephant Pass another big camp was established at Pullaveli. Thus a supply route from Vett rilaikerni to Elephant Pass was set up. Ships ferried supplies and personnel from Trincomalee to Vettrilaikerni.

Another camp was set up at Iyakkachi on the main A-9 Highway within the peninsula. This was the western gateway to the Elephant Pass camp. Another camp was established south of Paranthan on the mainland. All these camps were linked as part of the Elephan t Pass base complex. In terms of area the Elephant Pass base is perhaps the largest in the North as Paranthan on one end is four miles away from the central main camp while Vettrilaikerni at the other end is 13 miles away. The Elephant Pass complex house s the whole 54th Division of the Army.

Since it was obvious that the fall of Elephant Pass could well enable the LTTE to regain the peninsula from which it was driven out in 1995-96, it was thoroughly fortified. After the Tigers marked a string of military successes in the Wanni from November 2, 1999, anticipating a frontal Tiger assault on the 'entrance' camp to Jaffna, the Army was lying in wait at Elephant Pass.

THE Tigers, however, had other ideas. LTTE cadres travelling by boats from the Mullaitheevu coast infiltrated the areas surrounding Vettrilaikerni and Kattaikadu. They attacked both camps simultaneously. The Army was forced to alter its defence lines and withdraw. Thereafter the Tigers overran the camp at Pullaveli. This was followed by a successful attack on the Paranthan camp housed in what was earlier the Chemicals Corporation. The camp at Iyakkachi was being attacked fiercely by the Tigers. If and w hen Iyakkachi falls, the main camp at Elephant Pass would be isolated and made vulnerable. Already it is facing artillery pounding. The LTTE strategy of cutting off all "lifelines" by eliminating the surrounding camps could gradually weaken the main camp to the point of capitulation.

An image from an area in the Wanni under LTTE control.-VANNI PHOTO GROUP

If the LTTE strategy succeeds in Elephant Pass, it would be a triumph; the Tigers would have achieved their objective with minimum losses and bloodshed. Had the Tigers rushed headlong into the fortified Elephant Pass, they may have sustained heavy losses . All the gains made in the Wanni would have been nullified. Also, the likelihood of overrunning Elephant Pass in a direct confrontation was slim. The innovative strategy adopted instead of the expected conventional one has raised LTTE hopes of an ultima te victory at Elephant Pass.

The LTTE also conducted amphibious assaults on the southern coast of the peninsula. Trained commandos of the LTTE's "Siruthai" (leopard) unit along with Sea Tiger cadres crossed the Kilaly lagoon and made swift raids. A radar station at Thanankilappu was demolished and the equipment seized. The Tigers captured Kerathivu on the peninsula and Sangupiddy on the mainland. These were the points of entry for the Pooneryn ferry service that has been suspended for some years now. An Mi-24 helicopter carrying fo ur airmen was shot down by the LTTE over the lagoon. It is not clear whether a missile was used to do this.

The LTTE fired long range artillery from the mainland at targets in the thenmaratchy or southern sector of the peninsula. It was preceded by an announcement calling upon civilians along the coastal areas and in the proximity of military camps to m ove to the interior. The LTTE claimed that the shells had hit the brigade headquarters of 512 and 514. It was claimed that the artillery points of the Army on the coast were destroyed. Some shells hit civilian positions including a hospital. One person w as killed and 18 people were injured.

After taking Vettrilaikerni the LTTE proceeded northwards along a coastal road that ends up at Point Pedro, the northernmost point of the island. The LTTE succeeded in capturing the army camp at Maruthankerni and adjoining villages such as Uduthurai and Aaliyavalai. The next military camp along this road is at Thalaiyadi where a major confrontation is expected.

Another contingent of the LTTE turned westwards at Maruthankerni and are proceeding along a road that merges at the Puthukaddu Junction on the Jaffna-Kandy road north of Iyakkachi. If the Tigers reach their destination, then they would have formed a rect angular swathe of territorial control above Elephant Pass. Thus it would be interdicted from all other possible strategic points on the peninsula.

If the quick successes of the Wanni are the standard to measure LTTE progress, then in the peninsula the pace is slow in comparison. But the strategy employed by the Tigers seems to be "cost-effective". The ultimate goal, of course is Jaffna town. It rem ains to be seen whether the LTTE will continue with its successful run albeit slowly or will meet with effective military opposition.

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