Military Matters


Coming Soon:

Showdown in the Wanni

Commander-in-Chief 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.

The oversell

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 another airstrike.

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 anybody’s guess.
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 time around.


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 media.

“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 troops.
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 24.

“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 “Unicorn”.

“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 mines.”

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 their hideout.
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 said.
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 communication equipment.

“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 to escape.”
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.