Frontline Volume 16 - Issue 25, Nov. 27 - Dec. 10, 1999
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU


Table of Contents

COVER STORY

LTTE OFFENSIVE

With the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam demonstrating its military resilience and marking major advances in the Wanni war, the avowed objective of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's war for peace stands exposed as a non-workable exercise.

D.B.S JEYARAJ

THE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched on November 2 the third phase of Operation Oyatha Alaigal (Unceasing Waves) in the northeastern sector of the Wanni region in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. By November 15, the LTTE's positions had adv anced in a southwest direction from Oddusuddan on the A-34 highway to the outskirts of Omanthai on the Jaffna-Kandy A-9 highway. The Tigers also moved southwards on the eastern flank to the militarised settlements of Manal Aaru or Weli Oya. Vavuniya, the southernmost town of the Northern Province, also came under threat.

After a brief respite, the LTTE recommenced its operations on November 18 by conducting assaults simultaneously on military positions in the northwestern sector of the Wanni region, which comprises the districts of Mullaitivu, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Vav uniya. The Tigers captured several Army camps in these areas; they also took control of the famous Holy Rosary Church at Maruthamadhu, popularly known as Madhu. However, the Army recaptured it within 48 hours. In the process, 38 civilians who had taken r efuge in the Catholic church were killed and 60 injured. The Army and the LTTE have blamed each other for the tragedy. The LTTE has also started attacking military positions on the island off Mannar on the northwestern coast. As of November 22, the fight ing continued without any signs of abating.

SRIYANTHA WALPOLA
An armoured personnel carrier of the Army proceeding to the battlefront in Vavuniya in November.

The first phase of Operation Oyatha Alaigal was conducted in July 1996 in Mullaitivu. The Army camp there was demolished, and the town fell to the LTTE. During the second phase of the operation, in September 1998, the Kilinochchi military complex was ove rrun. More than 2,000 soldiers were killed in these operations. The armed forces have not been able to wrest control of these areas.

The third phase of the campaign has proved to be the most successful military offensive recorded by the LTTE in the entire history of the armed conflict. If one were to adapt Winston Churchill's famous line after the aerial battle of Britain in 1940 to t he LTTE attack, it could be said that "never in the history of the Eelam conflict has so much territory been regained in so few days with so little losses by such small groups of Tigers."

After dislodging the Tigers from the Jaffna peninsula in 1995-96, the Sri Lankan forces had made several attempts to undermine their presence in the Wanni. The idea was to establish a land-linked route between Vavuniya, the southern point of the Northern Province, and the Jaffna peninsula through the conquest of the 77-km stretch of road between Vavuniya and Kilinochchi on the Jaffna-Kandy road, known as the A-9 highway. After various operations which saw mixed results, the Army succeeded in taking a 44 -km stretch of road between Vavuniya and Mankulam. Some of the key areas along this road that were under Army control were Omanthai, Puliyankulam and Kanakarayankulam. The Army had also made deep inroads into the northeastern sector of the Wanni, lying t o the east of A-9 highway. Government troops had consolidated their positions in areas extending to the northeastern village of Oddusuddan along the A-34 highway linking Mankulam and Mullaitivu on the eastern coast.

Another series of operations saw the Army establish control over substantial areas in the northwestern sector of the Wanni too. The place it took control included the Our Lady of Madhu church. One puzzling aspect of these operations was the lack of resis tance by the LTTE in the early stages. But when the Army tried to take over the coastal Mannar-Pooneryn road and establish another land route, the Tigers offered resistance.

SIGNIFICANTLY, the LTTE's record in the past year was marked by the conspicuous absence of military operations from November 1998. Its spokespersons abroad would maintain that the militants refrained from putting up any resistance for fear of endangering the peace initiatives. But the reality was that the LTTE, in typical guerilla fashion, was trading space to buy time. Ceding land made the Army overextend itself, by spreading thin over too much land, thereby increasing its vulnerability. On the other h and, the LTTE was quietly recruiting and training cadres, assembling weapons and arsenals and drawing up plans for a counter-attack. The fact that the LTTE had allowed the Army to seize much territory without resistance had demoralised its supporters. In order to regain public support, the Tigers had to complete a military mission successfully.

The onset of the monsoon made the forest terrain sodden. The climate was not conducive to major military activity. Nevertheless, the Tigers had to launch a counter-offensive, for politico-military reasons. The LTTE had originally planned its operation fo r November 11. Apart from being War Remembrance day, November 11 also marked the sixth anniversary of Operation Frogleap, the amphibian attack that demolished the Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai military complex in 1993. By conducting a successful operation, t he LTTE could create the ambience of victory that was necessary for Maaveerar Thinam, its annual Great Heroes' Day. After a military success, LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran could deliver his traditional address from a position of perceived strength. The LTTE, however, advanced its operations in order to pre-empt any moves by the Army.

SRIYANTHA WALPOLA
Deputy Minister for Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte. He wanted a military drive although the rain had made the terrain difficult
to wage a war.

THE LTTE's military operation was preceded by an unusual manoeuvre by the Army. Starting in mid-October, the Sri Lankan security forces advanced along the old Kandy road from Karippatta-imurippu on the Mankulam-Mullaitivu road and established a permanent presence at Ambakamam. Subsequ-ently, troops advanced from Oddusuddan on the east of Karippattaimurippu on the Mankulam-Mullaitivu road, known also as the A-34 highway. These troops established forward defence lines that were linked to positions at Amba kamam in a somewhat rectangular shape. On October 30 and 31, troops used this rectangular formation to push upwards in the direction of Muthaiyankaddu. After meeting stiff resistance from the militants, they returned to Ambakamam and Oddusuddan on Novemb er 1.

The Army operations in the Oddusuddan-Ambakamam sector were described as "Operation Watershed". The nomenclature itself was a give-away of the underlying compulsions for the operation. A presidential election was in the offing. The Chandrika Kumaratunga government was constrained to demonstrate through contemporary military successes on the ground that the Tigers were being defeated. Projecting such an image would have contributed immensely to an electoral success for Kumaratunga, it was felt. The Peopl e's Alliance (P.A.) government has on several occasions been criticised for setting up military deadlines to suit political timetables. Now the government needed a war victory during the election campaign. So, in spite of the adverse weather conditions, the Army was politically pressured to deliver militarily. Calling the operation a "watershed" suggested that the ultimate objective of the manoeuvres may be overrunning LTTE strongholds, including Prabakaran's "One Four Base". What was hopefully a politi co-military watershed paved the way for the Waterloo that followed.

Once the LTTE anticipated Army expeditions, pre-emptive strikes became imperative. So the D-Day of Unceasing Waves-III had to be advanced. On November 1, the LTTE held a top-level conference in the historically significant Katsilaimadhu located north of Oddusuddan and south of Puthukkudiyiruppu. Pandara Wanniyan, the legendary Wanni chieftain of Adankapattu who ruled in Panankamam, was defeated by British troops led by Major Drieberg at Katsilaimadhu. A stone inscription as well as a statue erected abou t 20 years ago bear testimony to the heroic image of the last feudal ruler, who defied the imperialist aggressor. Katsilaimadhu witnessed another historic occasion on November 1. Prabakaran, along with his senior deputies, was there to finalise plans to launch Oyatha Alaigal. Several Tiger commanders, such as Balraj, Karuna, Sornam, Jeyam, Bhanu, Theepan, Rabat, Nagesh, Anton, Selvarajah, Asha, Durga and Malathie, were present at the conclave. Even as the meeting was on, thousands of male and female cad res secretly converged on Muthaiyankaddu, Samm-alankulam, Mulliyawalai, Thanneer-ootru, Katpoorappulveli, Kodalikkal, Indimadhu and Thanduvan. They were drawn from different fighting formations, such as the Charles Anthony and Jeyanthan infantry division s, the Sothiya Women Corps, the Kittu artillery brigade, the Victor armoured corps, the Leopards Commando unit, the Black Tiger suicide squads and the anti-aircraft unit. There were also members from auxiliary civilian units.

GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/ AP
At Weli Oya, curious Sinhalese refugees look on as bodies of Tamil Tigers are removed from the war front.

Prabakaran was both the architect and the chief executive of the operation: Tiger literature claims that the entire operation was guided, inspired and masterminded by the leader who is also the supreme commander of LTTE forces. The LTTE's deputy military commander-in-chief, Balraj, a son of the Wanni soil, was in charge of coordinating the operational headquarters. Karuna, a senior commander from Batti-caloa, was the overall field commander. Once Prabakaran gave the go-ahead, the Tigers started their op erations.

The first target was Oddusuddan, which was seized by the Army last December in Operation Revibalaya (Solar Power). Oddusuddan was guarded by the Second Gajaba Regiment on the west and the Walagambaya division of the Navy on the east. Incidentally, three naval divisions were deployed on land duty in the eastern sector of the Wanni. Likewise, Air Force divisions were on duty in the western sector. Both services were being used as supplementary ground troops, to assist the Army. The western and eastern Wan ni sectors were demarcated by the A-9 highway, which bisects Wanni.

GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/ AP
Army reinforcements on their
way in Medawachiya.

An LTTE commando unit infiltrated the Army lines on Manavalanp-attaimurippu on the Mullaitivu road, west of Oddusuddan. Around midnight, the unit attacked the Gajaba troopers from behind. A little later, three formations of LTTE fighters attacked the cam p from all three sides. After nine hours of fighting, the LTTE overran the Oddusuddan camp. The Gajaba soldiers and the Walagampaya naval personnel were virtually annihilated. A fresh column of LTTE cadres, along with the civilian militia, came in a moto rcade from Mulliyawalai and hoisted the Tiger flag. It is said that Karuna performed the honours. Thereafter, the Tigers and their civilian militia began transporting by road to Mullaitivu the vehicles, arms, ammunition and equipment seized.

The Tigers then proceeded in three directions: to the northwest towards Ambakamam, westwards to Karippatt-aimurippu and Olumadhu, and to the southwest to Nedunkeny. Nedunkeny was taken in the preliminary stages of Operation Jeyasikurui in May 1997. It is situated on the Puliyankulam-Mullaitivu road and is the interface of Vavuniya and Mullaitivu districts. It is very much the gateway to Mullaitivu, or the Tiger heartland. The access route between Oddusuddan and Nedunkeny had the 3rd battalion of the Sin ha Regiment at Samanankulam and the 8th battalion of the Vijaybahu Regiment at Pandariku-lam. After some fierce fighting, Nedunkeny also fell to the LTTE.

In the meantime, the other two Tiger columns were confronting two naval divisions stationed on the western flank of the Mullaitivu-Mankulam road on the one hand, and the 55th division personnel on the Ambakamam rectangle, on the other. After heavy fighti ng, Karippattaimurippu fell. Then the Tigers proceeded along the old Kandy road towards Ambakamam while other formations kept pounding Olumadhu adjacent to Karippatt-aimurippu on the road between Mank-ulam and Mullaitivu. Reinforcements sent from Mankula m were prevented from reaching Olumadhu as Tiger commandos blew up a bridge over a tributary of the Kanagarayankulam.

Soon Ambakamam fell, and it was followed by Olumadhu. Thereafter, advancing LTTE personnel began pounding Kanagarayankulam and Mankulam, both on the A-9 highway. Shortly thereafter, Mankulam fell. The Tigers then started proceeding southwards by vehicles along the Jaffna-Vavuniya road. Government troops had captured the stretch of roadway between Vavuniya and Mankulam in Operation Jeyasikurui after 19 months of fighting. Now the Tigers were merrily cruising along the stretch. Some rearguard action was p roffered at Kanakarayanku-lam, the headquarters of the 56 Division manning the eastern Wanni sector. But the following day, Kanakarayankulam too fell. Then the Tigers went further south to Puliyankulam, which also succumbed the same day.

SRIYANTHA WALPOLA
Major-General Niel Dias, the new Army Commander for the Wanni region.

Finally, on November 7, the LTTE reached Panickaneeraavi on the outskirts of Omanthai, 15 km south of Vavuniya. Omanthai too had been captured by the Army in May 1997. The rapidly retreating troops finally dug in at Omanthai. Reinforced by troops from Va vuniya and artillery field guns, the Army began defending Omanthai. Other places where some resistance was displayed were Madhiyamadhu and Nainamadhu on the Puliyankulam-Nedunkeny stretch; Othi-yamalai and Pattikkudiyiruppu in the Nedunkeny area; Karappu kuthi and Katkidanku near Kanakarayankulam; and Semamadhu near Omanthai.

The LTTE has also seized some points on the western sector or areas to the west of the A-9 highway. Moondrumurippu near Mankulam, Mannakulam near Kanakarayankulam and Puthoor near Puliyankulam have been seized. Some Air Force personnel and soldiers were killed or injured.

The LTTE has also begun artillery attacks on Pallamadhu and Palampitty in Mannar. Both these places are of strategic importance in the context of an attempt to take the Mannar-Pooneryn road. After Operation Jeyasikurui aimed at securing the A-9 highway w as aborted, the Army had launched a series of operations, named Ranaghosha, or battlecry, and seized a lot of territory and vast stretches of the Pooneryn road. It was said that the objective was to utilise the Mannar-Pooneryn road as the land route to J affna.

The government began its manoeuvres in the Wanni with the launching of Operation Jeyasikurui, but called them off in December 1998. The operation had seen the Army sustain tremendous losses, with the LTTE taking to positional warfare by defending entrenc hed positions. Now, after the first stage of Oyatha Alaigal-III, the Army has lost 30 km of the 44-km stretch it had seized on the A-9 highway and, according to preliminary estimates, 1,269 sq km of territory on the eastern Wanni front. It has lost in ju st a week areas annexed over a period of two and a half years: the losses include 10 bases, 24 camps, 116 posts and an unknown number of bunkers. Massive amounts of arms, ammunition, equipment, tanks and armoured cars and other vehicles were seized by th e Tigers. So too were large amounts of dry rations. Although the Government puts it at unbelievably low levels, the Army and the Navy have lost more than a thousand men, Opposition parties allege. The LTTE claims that its losses are only in hundreds.

LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran,
the chief executive of Operation Oyatha Alaigal III.

The more significant aspect of the fighting was the fact that the LTTE adopted conventional techniques to chase the Army out. Thousands of troops literally ran away instead of fighting. There have been reports of rebellion, in some places of which office rs and military policemen were shot. Large-scale desertions have occurred. There has been a breakdown in discipline. In short, the Army, despite its numerical and logistical superiority, has been decisively routed. How did this happen?

TWO developments occurred on the first day itself, and these had important consequences in the course of war in the immediate future. First, the LTTE used newly acquired anti-aircraft weapons to bring down two helicopters and damage a plane. The Air Forc e panicked, thinking that the Tigers possessed the ability to blast planes in the skies. The Air Force suspended all active engagement in the conflict for more than a week. Thus the beleaguered ground troops on different fronts in the eastern Wanni secto r could not receive assistance from the Air Force for quite a while.

Secondly, the officials in Oddusuddan hastily loaded a South African "Buffel" tank with all communication codes and signal crypts and tried to send it to the 56 Division headquarters at Kanakarayankulam after their camp came under attack. The tank got bo gged down in the slush. As the troops abandoned it, the Tigers seized it. Using the codes, the LTTE began penetrating the radio communications system of the Army. As a knee-jerk reaction, the Army stopped all internal communications. The communications e quipment within the combat zone went dead for several days. As a result, panic and confusion set in among the troops.

The primary cause for the debacle was the suspension of aerial contact and radio communications. Without a proper leadership issuing directives or morale-boosting reassurances, the individual Army detachments began withdrawing. Several officers had begun retreating, instead of urging the soldiers to stand and fight. The Government's refusal to accept the bodies of soldiers from the LTTE in the conflict zone also fuelled troop resentment. A collapse of logistical support hampering transport, food supplie s and medical treatment also created a demoralising impact. After fighting at Oddusuddan and a few other places, the soldiers preferred "flight" to "fight". An angle being probed by the Government is sabotage and propaganda by pro-United National Party ( UNP) elements. It is suspected that some officers who support the main Opposition party had sabotaged the war effort.

In its anxiety to find scapegoats, the Government has transferred all senior commanding officers. But there is criticism of the political leadership itself. Many intelligence warnings went unheeded because the Government wanted a quick military victory t o boost its chances in the presidential election. Monsoon rain had made the terrain in the Wanni region difficult for military operations, but Deputy Minister of Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte wanted a military drive. Hence Operation Watershed was launched t o take Ambakamam first, and follow it up with further incursions. The stationing of troops on the outer perimeter endangered other points, which the Tigers exploited. Another reason for demoralisation among the troops was the realisation that they were b eing cynically expended in a war that had the ruling party's electoral victory as its ultimate motive. According to Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the pro-UNP newspaper Sunday Leader, "The Government has to face the fact that the defeat was a r esult of bad military planning. The soldiers deserted because they realised they were not fighting a war to save the country but to further the interests of a particular political party."

THREE salient points that contributed to the LTTE successes were tremendous artillery barrages, the rapid mobility of personnel and vehicles, and expert tactics. After the initial stages, the element of surprise was no longer there: thereafter it was onl y superior mobility, better tactics and the precise use of artillery that mattered. The very same weather conditions that affected military movement did not hinder the Tigers. Also, the LTTE allowed the retreating soldiers an escape route in most cases i nstead of trying to surround and decimate them. This led to most soldiers opting to run away rather than fight. It must be noted that in many earlier operations, the denial of escape routes by the Tigers contributed to soldiers rallying and fighting a li teral battle for survival, thereby preventing an outright LTTE victory.

Another area where the LTTE made an impact was Weli Oya or Manal Aaru. This strategic region was carved out by the UNP, with the objective of ending the territorial contiguity of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The P.A. Government, after the initial successes of Jeyasikurui, embarked on implementing the scheme of colonising armed settlers and establishing a network of camps. It must be remembered that Tamil inhabitants were driven away earlier in a systematic f orm of ethnic cleansing. The LTTE has succeeded in destroying several camps in Weli Oya and continues to put pressure on the region. More than 7,000 Sinhala settlers have fled the area.

VAVUNIYA, the southernmost town of the Northern Province, too is under threat. The LTTE announced that it was going to shell the town and asked residents to move away. This led to about 9,000 people abandoning the town. Fearing a major assault, the armed forces gathered in large numbers in Vavuniya, transforming it into a garrison town. Instead of organising a swift counter-attack, the Army focussed its energy on protecting Vavuniya.

THE objectives of the LTTE in triggering such an exodus are yet to be revealed. It is, however, assumed that by threatening to invade Vavuniya, the Tigers succeeded in stalling government efforts to mobilise a swift counter-attack in the areas that were lost. Instead, it has concentrated personnel in Vavuniya. This gave the LTTE time to transport the arms and equipment that were seized and to revise its defence structures. Since the Tigers had not bargained for such early gains, they need time to consol idate and build defences to retain seized areas. They also need time for logistical preparations to continue their operations.

SRIYANTHA WALPOLA
Combat-ready in Vavuniya.

Given the prevailing low morale and poor fighting spirit among the armed forces, the LTTE decided to strike again. After a brief period of "rest" between November 9 and 17, the Tigers recommenced operations, in the northwestern sector this time. A number of military positions were attacked simultaneously. Most of these camps had been established on interior roads after different stages of Operation Ranaghosha. They were extremely vulnerable, being mere "islets" of troops in a surrounding "ocean" of LTTE -infested jungle terrain. They served very little strategic value. But to a government wanting to impress Sinhala voters with the extent of "real estate" acquired from the LTTE, it became a necessity to retain these camps. In the process, the Army spread itself thin and played into Tiger hands.

The LTTE took over a number of camps in a matter of days with comparatively little bloodshed. A repetition of the earlier pattern of soldiers deserting positions on their being pounded by artillery was quite evident. Areas such as Palampitty, Thatchanama ruthamadhu, Palamottai, Vaarikkuttiyoor, Navvi, Periyathambanai, Periyapandivirichan, Sinnapandivirichan and Periyamadhu were overrun with comparative ease. One area where the LTTE met with stiff resistance was Iranailuppaikulam. The large base there pro ved to be formidable. With Army reinforcements having been sent to Iranailuppaikulam, fighting continues in the area.

On the Mannar-Pooneryn road, the strategic junction of Pallamadhu was taken, along with Pappamottai and Naayaaruveli. Although the LTTE is yet to gain a permanent presence on the Vavuniya-Mannar road, it has succeeded in driving the Army back from most a reas to the north of this road. The Army now retains positions only on this road and has forbidden civilian movement on it.

Emboldened by these successes, the LTTE began an artillery attack against the main camp at Thallady in Mannar district. Thallady guards and controls the causeway to Mannar island where the important town of Mannar is located. The Tigers also shipped fiel d guns to Erukkalampitty on the island and began attacking the Army camp at the Mannar Fort premises. Later, Sea Tiger boats from the Nachikkudah base tried to invade the island at the Pallimunai coast.

Another controversial and sad event was the attack on Madhu (see box). On November 18, the LTTE surrounded the outlying areas of the church. The Army left the church premises. The Tigers did not stay in the church, in deference to the wishes of the pries ts. On November 20, a commando unit stormed their way into the church. About 3,500 refugees were asked to sleep inside the church and the adjoining Sacred Heart Chapel. At about 10-15 p.m. there was some shelling. The Army says that the LTTE fired the sh ells. The Tigers say that the Army had tried to move on to Palampitty and were repulsed by them. They maintain that the retreating soldiers had trained their tanks on the chapel.

Since fighting continues in the northwestern sector and positions are fluctuating, it is not possible to assess the total situation. But the LTTE does seem to have retaken 800 to 900 sq km of territory at least in this second stage of its operation. Thre e major camps at Periyamadhu, Periyathambanai and Palampitty, along with a number of smaller ones, have fallen. Neither the rate of casualties nor the nature of the military tactics adopted by the LTTE is known. But the important question is why the mili tary debacle was in such colossal proportions. In the first stage, of course, there was the element of surprise. But after the fighting started, the other camps should have been vigilant and prepared.

THE major consequence of this military campaign is that the LTTE has demonstrated its military resilience once again. The avowed objective of Chandrika Kumaratunga's war for peace stands exposed as a non-workable exercise. Even if the Tigers are compelle d to relinquish the newly taken territory, they have very effectively made the point that the organisation simply cannot be undermined gradually. Also, no strategy based on the ephemeral conquest of territory is workable. As such, bold and creative alter natives for a resolution of the conflict will have to be found in the long term. In the short term, the fighting will continue.

The Army's reversals have encouraged the Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, who is the chief opponent of Chandrika Kumaratunga in the presidential election. The UNP chief hopes to hold talks with the Tigers, if elected. He says that there is no mili tary solution to the ethnic conflict and that the Tigers cannot be wished away. The LTTE has to be politically accommodated. The military reversals have considerably diminished Kumaratunga's expectations and increased Wickremasinghe's. The boundaries are now back to where the Wanni hostilities began, and all the gains by the Government have been negated. But excessive victories by the LTTE may provoke a Sinhala backlash, which may result in Kumaratunga doing well.

The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora too is elated. Being hopelessly unrealistic and uncompromisingly intransigent, these sections now feel that Eelam is just around the corner. Despite being witness to so much territory change hands so many times, these elemen ts construe the latest Tiger successes as an indicator of ultimate victory over the Colombo Government. That the LTTE leadership itself neither expected nor prepared itself to acquire so much territory in such a short time is lost on these sections. The very same sections that were shouting themselves hoarse calling for peace talks are now using jingoistic statements: no need for talks until Eelam. Also, massive fund-raising campaigns are being undertaken successfully.

SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY
Chandrika Kumaratunga. Her avowed
objective of war for peace
appears non-workable.

The strategy adopted by the LTTE for the greater part of this year was perplexing. Nevertheless, with the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear now that the tactics worked.

Now it is Chandrika Kumaratunga's turn. With the presidential election just around the corner, she would be constrained to launch some dramatic counter-attacks, if possible. This is a risky - and from a humanitarian perspective unacceptable - option, but there does not seem to be any other way out for her.

So the cycle of violence will continue. It remains to be seen when the Sri Lankan forces will start their operations and how the Tigers will react.


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