Showdown in the Wanni
President Mahinda Rajapaksa receives the ‘Scroll of Liberation’ at the
ceremony held to mark VT day. pic by Nissanka Wijerathne
The question on everyone’s mind these days is “when will the military
campaign to capture the north begin?” Having successfully marketed the
“eastern liberation” to the good-news thirsty southern populace, the
government and the military are now expected to carry on the good work
to the Wanni, exactly the way they did in the east.
In the wake of the setbacks at Muhamalai in October 2006, the military
high command proclaimed that their objective was to destroy the enemy,
not hold territory. The cold calculation seems to be that the LTTE
cannot sustain large-scale losses in terms of manpower, while the
security forces can. It is estimated that with the clearing of the
eastern province, the total population under the LTTE’s control has
shrunk to around 350,000 civilians. Therefore, their ability to recruit
and maintain the required fighting strength has been severely depleted.
The least modest of estimates puts the LTTE’s strength, before the
Karuna split, at 20,000 cadres. Karuna, reportedly, had over 6000 cadres
under his command, when he decided to part ways with his Wanni brethren.
Most of them being child soldiers, were released by Karuna, only to be
recruited by the same faction or the Wanni Tigers, in the years since
2003. Over a year of fighting has also killed around 2000 LTTE cadres in
the northern and eastern fronts. Even with massive recruitment drives
reportedly under way in the Wanni and the training of civilians, some as
old as 80-years, the LTTE is still faced with a severe manpower shortage
to take on the military in the vast Wanni region. Therefore, however
callous it might sound, the numbers equation of “how many dead on their
side Vs how many dead on our side” does become a military equation when
fighting the Tigers.
Territory or Terrorists?
The military’s earlier strategy to seek and destroy, rather than capture
and hold was more prudent. The former strategy is, however, difficult to
sell to the politicians and the people at large, while captured land is
a more tangible trophy to market as a “victory”. This is what was
witnessed last Thursday, when the government propaganda machinery went
into overdrive to “sell” the capture of Thoppigala, to the southern
populace. Within 24 hours of the capture of the isolated hillock,
posters came up all over the country, hailing the achievement as a
victory for the government. For a government which has achieved very
little in the one-and-a-half-years since it came into power, and facing
the increasing wrath of the people for the high costs of living and the
rampant corruption, it is but natural, to make political mileage from a
military success. However, by its action, the government has once again
been allured by the real estate phobia which was rampant during the
previous Eelam Wars. The southern population is left to believe that the
capture of the Wanni is imminent. The JVP’s Wimal Weerawansha, now an
ardent critic of the government on many counts, urged the military to
march on to the north, as they did in the east. Whether the military
doctrine of seek and destroy can survive the political demand for
capture and hold, is something left to be seen in the months ahead.
Whether a southern populace, weary of the costs of war and the costs of
living, would buy into the military strategy of weakening the Tigers,
while not holding on to territory, is not guaranteed.
By overselling the Thoppigala recapture, the government has now firmly
got back to the “real estate’ mentality that prevailed during the mid
90’s, after the capture of the Jaffna peninsula. On that occasion, then
Deputy Minister of Defence and four-star general, Anuruddha Ratwatte
told a war weary southern populace that 98% of the war was over and
would be completed with the capture of the Wanni. Thus began the most
ambitious military campaign since independence, Operation ‘Jayasikuru’.
After nearly two-and-half-years of warfare and capturing much of the
jungle terrain of the Wanni, the security forces had to withdraw to
their previously held positions south of Omanthai. The military had been
overstretched. In the process of achieving political victory by
capturing land, it had lost sight of the military objective of
destroying the LTTE. The very same thing could happen, if the Thoppigala
euphoria is overplayed.
Thoppigala and beyond
The LTTE also senses the military’s intention to move into the Wanni, to
push them further into their heartland. Even though, from a guerrilla
school of thought, it is to the LTTE’s advantage, if the military pushes
into the jungle terrain of the Wanni, the LTTE cannot afford to lose
more land, and even worse, lose face in the eyes of the Tamil community
and the Diaspora. In the real estate phobia, the military is not alone,
since the LTTE too is forced to prove that they can hold and dominate a
demarcated area of land. According to the Montevideo Convention of 1933,
for a State to be established, as the LTTE wishes to do, they need to
fulfil four criteria; a defined territory, rule over a permanent
population, a government, and the capacity for bilateral relations with
other States. In this regard, the LTTE is unable to fight a classic
guerrilla war by drawing the security forces into the Wanni. Having
acquired conventional weapons such as planes, artillery and gunboats,
the LTTE is in no position to fight only a guerrilla war. They must
defend whatever territory that they presently control.
Complicating the LTTE’s plight are the many options open to the military
for its advance into the Wanni heartland. A few months ago, LTTE
political wing head S.P Thamilselvan, told a visiting Norwegian
delegation, that the army is making preparations to advance from the
Welioya or Mavil Aru region, east of the Wanni. Then, in the months from
August to October 2006, there was much activity in the Muhamalai area,
in the Jaffna peninsula, threatening a military advance towards Elephant
Pass from the north of the Wanni. At one point, there were heavy
artillery duels in the Vidaththalthivu area in Mannar, west of the Wanni.
In recent weeks the Mannar-Vavuniya Defence Line has seen several
large-scale confrontations, with the military threatening to advance
ahead of their current Forward Defence Lines (FDL). Therefore, the LTTE
is left guessing as to the direction from which a major assault on the
Wanni will be launched. Knowing that that they will be hard pressed to
fight the military on several fronts, the LTTE is targeting the military
in the Mannar-Vavuniya sector, to ensure that the military takes a
defensive position, rather than go on the offensive. The LTTE’s attack
on the army detachment at Neelachchena, Uyilankulam, this week, is
another example of the Tigers’ attempt at committing the security forces
into protecting the Main Supply Route from Madavachiya to Mannar. Also,
this week, the Tigers continuously targeted civilian settlements at
Athawatunu Weva in the Welioya area. The LTTE knows that by committing
the security forces into the defence of these vulnerable areas, they
could stall any major operation planned against the Wanni.
Threat to Trincomalee
The LTTE’s air wing had not made news since its daring attack on Colombo
on April 29. That changed last week, when a naval patrol off the
Nilaveli coast in Trincomalee, detected a low flying suspected Tiger
aircraft. This brought home the possibility of the LTTE taking on
“closer to home” targets in Trincomalee and Vavuniya, rather than
risking another attempt on Colombo or Palali. The danger of the LTTE
attacking Trincomalee from the air is very high, with the possibility of
targeting the large Naval vessels at sea, where they are most
vulnerable. The Navy’s fast attack craft fleet anchored at Dockyard,
Trincomalee, the China Bay air base and the many military installations,
have also become more vulnerable due to this threat. The forward army
detachments, particularly, of the newly established 57 Division based in
Vavuniya, are also under threat. The military will have to take remedial
measures to prevent the LTTE gaining a psychological upper hand by
The coming weeks and months would be an indication of the path the
military would take to weaken the LTTE. Whether they will continue with
their tried and tested strategy of infiltrating LTTE held territory, to
target the leaders and assets of the organization or, whether they would
opt for a more glamorous set piece operation into the Wanni, is
It has not been long enough, for the people of this country, to forget
the grand celebration held by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, after the
capture of Jaffna. Within months of her uncle Gen. Anuruddha Ratwatte
handing over the scroll of “liberation” and declaring that 98% of the
war was over, the military was humiliated in Mulathivu. Eight months
after Chandrika’s celebration, over 1500 soldiers died in Mulathivu,
followed by more setbacks. In the rush to achieve political mileage out
of a military success, let not history repeat itself, at least, this
How Thoppigala fell like nine pins
By Santhush Fernando in Toppigala
A former area commander of the infamous Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF),
Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta, had recently said that the IPKF made no attempt
to occupy the Thoppigala area, as “it had no strategic significance”.
The IPKF was present in Sri Lanka from August 1987 to March 1990. They
made an unsuccessful bid to “tame the Tigers” who had, in fact, grown
into an incorrigible prodigal son to its Indian masters.
“Thoppigala is a vast jungle area which does not lie on any major line
of communication. It was basically, a hideout for the LTTE. It had
hospitals, prisons and training camps. I have personally led operations
to destroy these facilities,” Maj. Gen Mehta had reportedly told the
“But, we always, came back to base, as there was no need to occupy the
area. There was nothing to occupy,” Gen. Mehta, who commanded Indian
troops in the Eastern districts of Batticaloa and Ampara, said. Defence
Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella retorted saying that the IPKF
could not occupy Thoppigala even though it had deployed some 20,000
However when The Nation team visited the last bastion of the Tigers in
the east, Thoppigala was far from the jungle everyone had expected to
see. It would have been totally different from what the IPKF had seen
during its deployment in the North and East. Thoppigala or Kudumbimalai
(in Tamil) seemed as it was the Sigiriya of the East, heavily fortified
and secured due to its strategic location.
There were a number of houses, paddy fields and even a school-
Kudumbimalai Kumaran Vidyalam (Boys School)- close to the rock. However,
they seemed to have been deserted for quite some time.
On one hand, due to its close proximity to the A5 road, (Badulla-
Chenkaladi), the place served as the Financial Hub of the Tigers in the
East and was a key money spinner, second only to Killinochchi itself.
From there LTTE had control of vast paddy fields, brick kilns, timber
felling operations as well as fisheries in Verugal and other coastal
areas under Tiger control.
A senior officer from the Commando Regiment told The Nation that the
operation to capture Batticaloa West had to be fast-tracked as it was
learnt that LTTE was planning to blow up the bund of Unnichchiya Tank
which would inundate 5 DS divisions in the area. The purpose of the move
was to disrupt military operations.
Thus the Phase I of the operation commenced from Kohombagasthalawa with
the deployment of troops at the Southern bank of the Tank on February
“The Tigers always expected an operation to commence from the periphery
of its territory, from Vavunathiv (North East) or Kokkadicholai (East)
or Periyapullumalai (South) or Vadumunai (North West). However, they
were taken by surprise when the attack came from ‘within’. With troops
advancing towards Thoppigala, LTTE realized that their area was divided
into two, disrupting their supplies.”
Gradually Karidiyanaru, Kokkadicholai, Chenkaladi towards the north of
A5 and Periapullumalai, Kovilporathivu, Vellaveli and Mandur all fell
into the hands of the forces. Further towards south in the adjoining
Ampara district the Special Task Force (STF) of the Police has already
captured Kanchkudichchi Aru in the Definite Victory Operation.
The whole stretch along A5 and to its east was liberated and Phase II to
capture the west of A5 was launched from Illuppadichenai on April 25.
A Captain of the Zulu (Z) Company of the Third Commando Regiment (3CR)
revealed to The Nation how the operation was unfolded. The 3CR had
served as the LRP (Long Range Patrol) and was the successor to LRRP
(Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol). LRP or “Lerp” as it was known in
military circles, was better equipped to serve for both fighting and
reconnaissance purposes (reci).
This was the first operation in which the capability of Commando
Regiment was fully utilized. Deep penetration units were deployed in
large scale for the first time.
Although Thoppigala was captured on July 10 civilians were not allowed
to pass Illuppadichenai as the roads had been infested with landmines,
laid mainly by the Tigers but also by forces in some instances.
The Company Commander (Captain by rank) of Zulu, and who had been
personally engaged in the operation, accompanied The Nation team in its
visit to Thoppigala in a Sri Lanka Army buffle popularly known as the
“Four eight member Lerp teams from Zulu Company were regularly sent into
uncleared areas on ten day missions. It can sometimes exceed ten days.
Our main target is to eliminate leaders and disrupt Tiger supplies and
communications to make way for ground troops. So we always avoid getting
into any confrontation” the Captain explained.
“LTTE has developed its own network of roads leading to Thoppigala
because of its significance as a reorganizing point. So our intention
was to disrupt its supplies and communications. But since some of their
roads were magnificently built it was hard for us to set up anti tank
While travelling suddenly he called the buffle to halt at a junction in
the middle of the jungle. “I remember setting up a mine here. Have we
removed it?” he asked his deputy.
His deputy got down, read the position in his GPS (Global Positioning
System) device and reported it to the Base. Journalists in the vehicle
started sweating at the thought of passing over an anti tank mine. He
got a reply in the affirmative.
“We just went over a place where I had laid an anti tank mine. But even
if it blows it won’t hurt anyone travelling in this (buffle)” he said.
We heaved a sigh of relief.
Later we came across the famous Tharavikulam Cemetery. (Tharavi is
located between Thoppigala and Illuppadichenai) “There can you see the
newly dug graves.” the Captain queried from us as he pointed his finger
to graves sans epitaphs and covered only with sand.
“We ascertained that these were real ones because there are bodies
there. There are altogether 175 graves. After monitoring Tiger
communications we have put their casualty toll at 444. Out of that 175
are found here. Fifty five were handed over by us to the Red Cross and
another 155 were seen at the battlefield,” he recalled.
The Nation later learnt that the notorious TMVP (Thamileela Makkal
Viduthalai Puligal) or Karuna faction had asked the forces permission to
visit the cemetery as their former colleagues were buried here. The
request is yet to be granted.
Once we reached Thoppigala we got down from the vehicle. We were asked
not wander away from the path for obvious reasons. As the climb was
hectic we tried to figure out as to why the Tigers would select this as
Pointing at a ladder, the mode of access to the peak, the Captain said
“Tigers had fixed a Johnny Butta (mine) to the ladder and coupled it to
a 25 kilo TNT slab. If someone stepped on it, part of the rock would
have collapse and killed all who were following him.
“In mid way we met a couple of Tigers. Although they were bewildered and
could not recognize us, one of them asked from us ‘yar daa?’ (Who are
you?). However we retreated to avoid confrontation.
“Once on the summit of the rock we were greeted by the soldiers who had
been there since securing the place on July 10. The final mission
started on June 30 and they were on duty even until July 15” he said.
The whole area could be seen from the top of Thoppigala. “This is the
reason why it was impossible to penetrate into the area during daytime.
There are vast open areas without jungle covering. They could monitor
movements of the enemy and give accurate positions for artillery firing.
So we were forced to make our movements during night time” the Captain
On top of the rock there was the dome of a temple. Inside were several
pictures of deities. A pair of slippers belonging to an LTTE cadre had
been left behind.
On our return we were taken into one of the two bases built inside a
cave. “These could never be targeted by artillery. Still they had almost
every basic amenity here, even mattresses to sleep on. In Narakamulla
there were bases with air conditioned rooms.
Once at the foot of the rock we were shown ammunition and equipment that
had been captured. These included mortars, Johnny mines and hi tech
“The Tigers had just fled when we reached. They had torched their
vehicles and they were still burning when we got here. From monitoring
their communication our intelligence informed that they were about to
poison nearby wells but they had not. I guess they barely had time even
There is a popular saying “it is one thing to conquer land but another
thing to rule over it.” The forces have done it again like they did in
Muttur, Sampur, Verugal, Vakarai, Kanchikudichcha Aru and Karadiyanaru.
So it is up to the government to facilitate immediate relief, establish
civil rule and accelerate development and win the hearts of the people.