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Military Matters


 

After the east, the Wanni beckons

Much has been written of the capture of Thoppigala since then and throughout the months-long operation that was technically divided into two phases that began on February 24 and April 25.
The Commando Regiment has been instrumental in many offensives since the Mavil Aru operations began in the east on July 26, last year. The Thoppigala operation, involving the 2 and 3 Commando Regiments, is no exception and Brigade Commander, Commando Regiment, Brigadier Charlie Gallage has done tremendous work.

He was at hand on Friday to receive Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and the Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera in Thoppigala.

Elite forces used
From the inception Eelam War IV, the Army used its elite forces – the Commandos and the Special Forces – for the many operations that gave it a tactical advantage over the LTTE. These specially trained forces braving the elements, deprived of regular baths and surviving on dry rations, even capsules for nutrition, made the difference.

The regular infantry troops did their part, while the deep penetration teams brought on the element of surprise and contributed towards the resultant victory in the first stage of Eelam War IV.
The invaluable intelligence and support of the ‘Karuna’ faction, in terms of information on terrain and places he once controlled, also gave the forces more than an edge in this phase.
The LTTE, smarting under the loss of Karuna and his men, failed to make an impression in this phase of the war, where the security forces won almost all the battles.

Salt in the wound

The military won round one in the east, with the last battle at Thoppigala, which it secured on Wednesday, July 11. The Tigers warned that there would be a trap but, in the end, there wasn’t any.
As if to rub it in, the military announced that it would use the Tigers’ Thoppigala training bases to train its soldiers, obviously for the battles ahead in round two in Wanni and the north.
The trend has been that of the LTTE warning of greater bloodshed, if this or that area in the east is captured. But, in the end, it turned out to be a non event.

On other hand, the government had been saying it would stop with Sampur but, in the end, continued its thrust. Finally, with the east liberated, the military is not happy until it forges ahead in the Wanni and the north, claiming that its military positions are threatened by the LTTE artillery and mortars.
The action started several months back, even as Tiger control of the east was beginning to fall apart.

Ready to fight
The LTTE has always withdrawn from the east, when confronted, which is true, even when Col. Karuna held sway for the Tigers there.
But, in the north, as we said before, the forces should not expect a cakewalk, as the Wanni Tigers are well entrenched and will fight it out on their own terrain.
The Tigers have signalled that they are ready for the fight, by performing military drills before the international media, in rebel-held territory in the north.

Drills apart, the Tigers, equipped with artillery and mortars, struck yesterday, killing a soldier and wounding another 11, putting a dozen troops out of action in one go in northern Vavuniya. The military retaliated and killed scores of Tigers, according to Military Spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe.
Tiger fighter S. Kadalarasan, on the sidelines of a practice assault, said, “The main objective on the battlefront is how to destroy the enemy’s battle tanks and armoured vehicles.”

Tank territory
The military would not hesitate to put its armoured corps to good use in what is seen as tank territory. But, the military should be reminded that the last time it tried using tanks in Muhamalai on October 11, lost several owing to the LTTE’s ingenuity.
They were, of course, routed from the Jaffna peninsula in 1995, during Operation Riviresa, which, however, drew troops from the liberated east, allowing the Tigers to infiltrate and control the east again. From the peninsula they moved into the Wanni, where they are well entrenched.

Locked out of the Jaffna peninsula and the east, the LTTE is fully concentrated in the Wanni and would be more than a match for the security forces even in a conventional battle, as we saw west of Omanthai, a few weeks back.
As for the military, to its advantage, troop morale is high, following the capture of Thoppigala, marking the liberation of the entire east, with pockets of Tigers likely to be targetted in the mopping up operations.

Air threats
But, the real fear of the Tigers is the role played by the air force in ‘Eelam War IV’. The air force wreaked havoc on Tiger infrastructure including training camps, bunkers, fuel and ammunition dumps and gun positions.
“We can’t keep a training base for a long time in this area,” said LTTE military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan, alluding to the threat of air strikes.

Round two would largely depend on the air force destroying more of these bases, with yesterday’s attack on the Mannar base being just the beginning.
“We successfully bombed the LTTE camp in Mannar with many casualties,” declared Air Force spokesman, Group Captain Ajantha De Silva.
While the LTTE conceded defeat in the east, for the first time, LTTE political head S.P. Thamilselvan, who has warned of a bloodbath before, has threatened to hit, not only military targets but also, economic ones.

Wanni war on the cards
Thamilselvan also declared that peace was not possible as long as Mahinda Rajapaksa remained President and the role of the international community was futile. However, again it was the Tigers who wanted Rajapaksa as President, in the first place, by enforcing a boycott of the election in the cleared areas, with or without a bribe.
Was the threat and the ‘no faith’ confession an announcement that the Tigers were giving notice they were withdrawing from the five-year truce, which, anyway, is in tatters and would ignominiously be buried unless a miracle occurs? If it doesn’t, war in the Wanni is very much on the cards.

The Wanni Tigers, no doubt, have known to be stronger in the north and Wanni, than in the east but, the series of reversals it faced during the past year, was likely to have a dampening effect on the morale of its cadres, even to defend these strongholds.
While the hardcore LTTEers who withdrew from the east to the Wanni, would fight to the last, the ones recently conscripted would not be motivated to stay on and would escape in the face of the recent reversals. Some have even surrendered to the security forces. The security forces estimate that a little over 2,000 Tiger cadres have been killed.

Casualties
The LTTE admits that a little more than 1,000 have died in the one-year of fighting. What about those injured? The wounded in action (WIA) is usually much higher than the number killed in action (KIA). Given the dead, the wounded and those who escaped, it would be difficult for the LTTE to put up a good fight in the Wanni and the north. However, it could be argued that the LTTE, entrenched in its positions, does not need those fleeing from the east, to defend the Wanni and the north.

What would make the difference in the second stage of the war in the Wanni and the north is, which side first springs the element of surprise. As we have seen, it would not be easy to repeat the same strategies as in the east, as the Wanni is well fortified.
In this second round, it is the air force, as we said before, that could destroy LTTE infrastructure, training camps, ammunition dumps and gun positions and make a material difference by wreaking havoc. However, it would have to be done carefully, avoiding, as it did in the east, the teeming civilians.

Psychological advantage
While some may question whether there was a tactical advantage as opposed to a strategic advantage in capturing Thoppigala, the psychological advantage of getting at the ‘nerve centre’ of the LTTE in their last bastion in the Eastern Province, is worthy of mention.
According to the military, troops gained total control of Narakamula and Tharavikulama areas, where the LTTE had its eastern headquarters and other fortifications. Troops advanced from three directions namely, Karadiyanaru northward, Sittandi westward and Welikanda southward.

In the backdrop of this success, the Security Council met on Wednesday – sans Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who is overseas but, sent his message to mark the occasion.
Unlike previously, when a cake was cut at the Security Council meeting, this time around such celebrations were on a low key, as bagging Thoppigla was expected, since the LTTE was up against it and it was only a matter of time before the Tigers’ supplies would be cut off.

Lines of control
It must be mentioned that the east was demarcated with strict lines of control at the time of the February 22, 2002 Ceasefire Agreement. It must also be mentioned that the LTTE did entrench itself in the east, during the truce.
Major General Lucky Algama (killed by the LTTE at an election rally), together with then Brigadier Janaka Perera, helped wrest control of the east in the early nineties, under then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne who stepped down after the Pooneryn debacle.

The Special Task Force (STF) has been entrusted with the security of the eastern coast from Batticaloa down up to Pottuvil, Siyambaladuwa and up to Amparai and Maho Oya. The total strength of the STF is 6,000 personnel, with the recruitment drive adding 600 new recruits. The biggest obstacle for recruitment is the requirement that the six passes include mathematics in one and the same sitting.

The STF moved from Kangikadichchi Aru northwards, overrunning LTTE bases up to Pillumalai, while soldiers moved westward form Vavunativu, capturing Kokkadicholai, Ayittimalai, Unnichchai and Karadiyanru LTTE bases. By April 2007, the troops were able to clear the A-5 highway completely, by capturing the section of the road between Chenkaladi and Mahoya. This enabled operations in Thoppigala to flush out Tigers from their last stronghold in the east.

Development
We have dealt with the resettlement in the east, after the many operations conducted in the past year. This must be coupled with development as an alternative for the people to be the beneficiaries, after two decades of deprivation. On Thursday, the Government is scheduled to announce its ambitious plans, despite the Treasury coffers being sapped by military expenditure.
According to government statistics, the Eastern Province is 9,965 sq. kilometres in extent, which is approximately 16% of the total land area of the island. At its longest, it is 286 kilometres, from Kumana in the south to Pulmoddai in the north east, while at its widest, it is 89 kilometres, from Ulhitiya in the west to Kirankulam in the east. It has a 420-kilometre coastline (Ampara 110 kilometres, Batticaloa 100 kilometres and Trincomalee 210 kilometres).

The chances are that development would also take into account the tourist potential of the eastern coast. Scuba diving and other forms of maritime leisure activities are likely to figure prominently in the development plans. Already, the government has announced a buffer zone along sections of the coast.

Need of the hour
Resettlement was effected after flushing out the Tigers who attacked camps in Kattaparichchan, Muttur, Toppur, Selvanagar and Mahindapura. Resettlement in Sampur is yet to commence, while in Vakarai it is almost complete.
Speedy resettlement of civilians is the need of the hour. They must be allowed to earn a livelihood after decades of deprivation, loss of loved ones and a fear psychosis that has gripped them, as they were often caught between the Tiger and the deep blue eastern sea.

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Tigers dethroned from Thoppigala

Army takes last Tiger stronghold to complete rout of the LTTE from the East

By Santhush Fernando in Thoppigala
For anyone travelling down the Batticaloa-Polonnaruwa, A11 highway, the Thoppigala peak is visible in the distant horizon, a few kilometres after Welikanda and nearly up to Valachchenai. For many years, however, that was as close anyone, other than the LTTE, could get to this illusive rock, which is more of symbolic value than of strategic military importance.
What Elephant Pass (EPS) was to the Sri Lankan military, Thoppigala was to the Tigers, an impregnable fortress. Just as the Sri Lankan military grappled with the fall of EPS in 2001, this week, the LTTE had to fathom the reality that they no longer were the kings of the Thoppigala jungles.

The much-talked of Thoppigala peak or, the Baron’s Cap, as it was called by the British, is surrounded by vast stretches of jungle with rocky outcrops. This complex mountain range, with its thick jungles, had provided cover for the LTTE, for many years.
Rough terrain, jungle cover and an intricate network of roads carved out in the area, had ensured that the region was virtually impregnable and near impossible to hold by the security forces.
The significance of Thoppigala was further enhanced with the outbreak of violence in the East, last July. Since the launching of military operations to capture Mavil Aru in July 2006, a majority of the eastern LTTE cadres retreated into this jungle hideout, while a few others escaped to the Wanni by sea and overland.

With the fall of Vakarai in January and the clearing of the A5 highway by April this year, the LTTE cadres left in the east, had no choice but to fall back to their fortified positions in Thoppigala. Here, there was a sense of security for the Tigers, since they were well entrenched and the terrain well suited for guerrilla warfare.
However, with the capture of Vakarai and the region east of the A5 highway, the LTTE cadres were well and truly trapped within the Thoppigala jungles, with their supply route to the Wanni cut off and access to the sea denied.
The Thoppigala region, dotted with rocky outcrops and vast areas of open shrub land, posed a serious challenge to the advancing security forces, when they launched their operation to capture the LTTE’s last stronghold in the east.
“The open areas deprived the forces the element of surprise, while the rocky outcrops offered excellent observation posts for the enemy,” said a senior commanding officer involved in the operation. The army launched its three-pronged final assault on Thoppigala on April 12.

In order to deny the Tigers of the strategic high ground, the Commando Regiment was tasked with capturing several key rocky outcrops in the area. With the army taking control of Kottiyagala, Dombageliyadde and Narakamulla, the LTTE was virtually entrapped in Thoppigala, with their main supply routes cut off.

The Commandos captured Kottiyagala peak on June 17 which deprived the Tigers from observing the forces’ movements in the valley below. In the final push towards Thoppigala, the army captured an area of approximately 1,100 square kilometres.
During the last days of the operation, the advancing troops came under heavy mortar fire. The Tigers even used a small multi-barrel rocket launcher to thwart the advancing forces. In addition to the elite units of the Gemunu Watch, the Gajaba and Sinha Regiment infantry units were deployed to the newly captured areas, to reinforce these positions.

It is reported that recruits undergoing training at the Special Forces Training School in Maduruoya were also deployed to engage the fleeing LTTE cadres, in addition to the armoured corps, artillery and engineer corps.
On July 10, the Commandos’ final push on Thoppigala was thwarted. However, the next day, the elite troops reached Baron’s Cap, marking the end of major ground operations in the east.

The military claims that 444 LTTE cadres were killed in the operation, of which 58 bodies were handed over to the ICRC, while ground troops reported seeing over 200 dead LTTE cadres.
Even though the whole of the Eastern Province is now under the control of the security forces, the LTTE is still expected to mark its presence with small-scale hit-and-run attacks. Several LTTE cadres, mainly young recruits, have surrendered to the security forces, while others have mingled with the civilians.
With military operations in the north imminent, it is to be seen whether history will repeat itself, where troop requirements in the north provided an opportunity for the Tigers to re-infiltrate the east, once it was cleared.

****