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News Features


Tigers demonstrate military prowess at Muhamaalai

 

For many, many moons, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been projecting an image that everything is going well for the security forces on the military front.

The people of this country have been the targets of a sustained propaganda barrage claiming that everything was hunky-dory for the regime in the ongoing war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

False propaganda

The scale of this propaganda has been so great that many people in the south have been taken in and believed that ‘victory’ over the Tigers was imminent.

This focus about winning the war instilled buoyancy in the public mood, which has helped the Rajapaksa regime to help contain resentment over the rising cost of living, inflation, economic decline, corruption, mismanagement, nepotism, economic decline, etc.
Many faults of the government are being tolerated to some extent because of the perception that the Rajapaksa regime is winning the war against the LTTE and therefore should not be hampered or obstructed in any way.

Apart from this, the government has the additional advantage of a feeble opposition and weak Leader of the Opposition.
There have been some, however, including this columnist, who have consistently pointed out that all was not going well with the government’s military project in the north.

While the security forces certainly had overwhelming military superiority over the LTTE, the beleaguered Tigers were not going to cave in meekly, it was pointed out.

The Wanni was the last stronghold or rear base of the LTTE and it would not retreat or withdraw as it did in the east. Besides, the LTTE was not a spent force. The Tigers may be down but they are certainly not out.

There have been several occasions in the past where the Tigers had displayed amazing military resilience and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. However, these dissenting views were lost on a government whose vision and mission revolved around the objective of military victory over the LTTE.

There was also a convergence between the government and military hierarchy. Army Commander Lt. Gen Sarath Fonseka is determined to finish the war before his term of office ends. Fonseka has gone on record that he would not leave war as a legacy for his successors.

Manoeuvres in the north

It is against this backdrop that recent military manoeuvres in the north have to be looked at.
The Army has five divisions on the northern and southern ends of Tiger-controlled territory in the north. The 55 and 53 Divisions are in the peninsula while the 58, 57 and 59 Divisions are in Mannar, Vavuniya and Manal Aaru/Weli Oya regions.

There has been intermittent fighting on all these fronts for many, many months. The Tigers have been fighting a defensive war with dogged determination.

Another display of the LTTE’s military resilience was seen on Wednesday, April 23, in the northern theatre of war along the axis of Kilaly-Muhamaalai-Nagar Kovil.

On the day before (April 22), Main Battle Tanks (MBT) and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) of the Army’s Mechanised Infantry Division (MID) 53-4 advanced towards the south and south-east in a fan-like formation between Kilaly and Muhamaalai. The MID, commanded by Col. Ralph Nugera, was formally raised in February last year. The LTTE has its own anti tank and armoured unit named after Victor, the former Tiger commander for Mannar. The LTTE has reportedly dug deep and long and wide trenches to combat and contain the MID.

There was no deep advancement into Tiger territory by the MID and Tiger artillery fired back at the advancing armoured vehicles. A Chinese built APC was hit by a RPG-7 fired at close range by members of the Victor Unit. The APC was put out of action. Thereafter, the MID withdrew.

There was a temporary lull, which, however, did not last long. A major military push commenced.
Military Commander for Jaffna Maj. Gen. Chandrasiri stationed himself at the 55 Division Headquarters in Kodikaamam to coordinate and direct the military operation.
Unconfirmed reports state that Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka was in Palaly to oversee the operation.

Security establishment ‘conned’
Both the 53 and 55 Divisions had been involved in the military push. According to circles close to the Defence Ministry, the entire operation had been set in motion at very short notice.
There hadn’t been much inter-service coordination and the Navy and Air Force were very much in the dark about the operation during its initial phases.

A major factor in the military decision to launch a quick but intensive operation was the ‘Intelligence’ received through intercepts of LTTE radio messages.

The gist of those intercepts indicated that the LTTE was in a difficult situation at the Kilaly-Muhamaalai-Nagar Kovil frontline and was hard-pressed to retain its positions.
Thus, it was decided that a sudden, swift strike could make LTTE defences crumble and that the armed forces could make that long anticipated breakthrough.

These plans, however, went awry and subsequent developments turned sour for the armed forces. The LTTE displayed a ferocious resilience that belied the Intelligence assessment of the Tigers being vulnerable at the Muhamaalai front.
It is now suspected that the LTTE had ‘conned’ the security establishment into thinking that they were weak and ill-prepared at the frontline.

The ‘intercepts’ were of messages deliberately sent out to hoodwink the armed forces. They were apparently hoaxes to lure the armed forces into attacking.

Even as fighting progressed, the armed forces found themselves subjected to more deceptive guile by the LTTE.
In fairness to the security forces, it must be said that the entire operation was well-planned and had on paper bright prospects of success. It was the implementation that went wrong.

Kilaly, Muhamaalai and Nagar Kovil are in the western, central and eastern areas of the lower part of Jaffna peninsula. This is the axis demarcating areas of control between the security forces and Tigers.
The respective Forward Defence Lines (FDLs) as well as the common ‘no man’s land’ zone are situated along this axis.

Military operation
It was past midnight, at around 2:30 a.m., that the military operation commenced. Since it was in the wee hours of the morning, the date technically was Wednesday, April 23. It was initially a stealth operation.

The 53 Division commanded by Brig. Samantha Sooriyabandara was to break out in two formations from Kilaly and South Muhamaalai and proceed south of the A9 or Jaffna-Kandy Road.
The 55 Division commanded by Brig. Kamal Gunaratne was to break out from Nagar Kovil on the east and proceed north of the A9.

The 55 Division was set a comparatively formidable task as it had to move through the marshy land called ‘Kandal’ in proximity to inlets of the Jaffna lagoon.
Both divisions were to set out at 2:30 a.m. and proceed. After breaking through, they were expected to move towards the centre and link up with each other.

Once the breakthrough and link-up was effected, a seven kilometre stretch was to be secured as phase one of the operation.
For reasons that are yet to be known, the 53 Division under Brig. Sooriyabandara was late and broke out only around 3:30 a.m. while the 55 Division began proceeding at the stipulated time of 2:30 a.m.

There seems to have been a breakdown in communications.
The 55 Division clashed with the LTTE in the ‘Kandal’ marshy lands and invaded into LTTE territory. The forces advanced more than 500-600 metres into Tiger territory and took over the LTTE’s first line of defence in that region.

While around six LTTE cadres were killed in a bunker, most of the remaining Tigers retreated from the first defence line.
By 5:30 a.m. the 55 Division had accomplished its preliminary task and was preparing to take on the second line of defence. Effective linking up between both divisions was delayed because of the 53 Division’s delay.

When the 55 Division tried to proceed further towards the second line of defence, the troops found themselves facing stiff resistance. The Ponnammaan Mines Corps of the LTTE had set up its mines and booby traps in key locations. They began to take a toll.

Nasty surprise
There was also another nasty surprise. Unknown to Military Intelligence, the LTTE’s Kittu Artillery Unit and Kutty Sri Mortar Unit had set up an artillery pad at Soranpattru.

From this position, the LTTE began firing with deadly accuracy on targets that were just a few hours before part of its first line of defence. Several soldiers were killed in the bunkers and trenches along this line.

Unable to link up with the 53 Division, the 55 Division soldiers were deprived of support from the 53-4 Mechanised Infantry. There was also no air support.

It appeared that the Tigers had enticed the 55 Division into their territory by withdrawing rapidly from positions along the first line of defence. It was a trap set by the Tigers.

While this was going on, the 53 Division, with its bungled start, was not faring well either. LTTE cadre resisted their advance fiercely. The LTTE used mortars, mines and snipers in many places to cause damage.

While the LTTE relied more on mines, booby traps artillery and mortars against the 55 Division, there was a lot of intensive combat with the 53 Division.

Support for the LTTE came from its tactical rear base set up between Pallai and the Puthukaadu junction.
This base, code-named Tango One, was the virtual headquarters with senior northern commander ‘Col.’ Theepan stationing himself here.

Fighters from the Charles Anthony, Jeyanthan, Imran and Pandiyan Infantry Divisions, Sothiya Women’s Brigade, Kittu, Victor, Kutty Sri and Ponnammaan Units and snipers from the Leopard Commando Chiruthaigal were moulded together into a viable defence.

‘Col.’ Lawrence was Commander of the Tiger cadre engaging the 53 Division and Lt. Col Muhunthan was in charge of the fighters resisting the 55 Division.
Three senior Tigers directing operations at the frontlines of Kilaly, Muhamaalai and the ‘Kandal’ areas of Nagar Kovil were Kutti, Jerry and Kumanan respectively.

Since the operation was initially meant to be one of stealth, the MID had not proceeded at the front of advancing troops. The MID came up at the rear at one stage and began firing. Subsequently it moved up front.
But the Victor unit engaged in counter strikes. According to some reports, two T-55 tanks were destroyed. Four other battle tanks were damaged.

As the morning sun got hotter and hotter, it became clear that the surprise operation was no surprise to the Tigers at all. The surprise, if any, was to the Army and quite shocking at that!
From around 10 a.m., the 55 and 53 Divisions began withdrawing. By 11:30 a.m., the soldiers had gone back to their earlier positions. At about 12:30 p.m., there was an air strike over Soranpattru where the Tiger artillery pad was located.

There was also an intensive artillery barrage towards the Pallai area for nearly five hours from 11:30 to 4:30.
Multi-Barrel Rocket Launcher (MBRL) fire was directed against the Tango One base. One MBRL can fire 40 rounds at a time. All comunication from Tango One ceased at about 2:30 p.m. It is unclear whether it was hit or whether the Tigers adopted tactical silence.

According to circles close to the Defence Ministry, more than 5,000 shells were fired by the security forces during all stages of the fighting. Though both sides downplayed their casualty toll, there is no doubt that the combined losses were heavy.
Emergency casualty evacuation (Casevac) measures were adopted. The security forces airlifted casualties by helicopter from Nagar Kovil to Palaly. Casualties were also transported by road from Mirusuvil to Palaly. Six buses were commandeered for this purpose.

A special transit facility was set up in Palaly to accommodate the injured before being sent by air to Vavuniya, Anuradhapura and Colombo.
The LTTE also used its vehicles and also two buses to transport its dead and injured. All public transport along the A9 between Kilinochchi and Pallai and on the Paranthan-Mullaitivu Road was curtailed for six hours to facilitate LTTE casualty evacuation.

Apart from receiving treatment from the Thileepan Medical Unit, many serious cases were admitted to the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Hospitals.
The LTTE announced initially that 16 of its cadres were killed. Later it revised it to 25. The figure for injuries was not released by the LTTE officially.

Casualties
Informed Tamil sources revealed that 55 to 60 Tigers were killed in the fighting. Of these, only the names of the cadres with 18 months of experience would be eventually acknowledged.
Those with less than 18 months of experience are not regarded as full-fledged LTTEers and will not be officially acknowledged.
The sources also said that around 80 LTTE cadre were injured. About 10-15 of these were serious cases.
The LTTE-controlled radio Tamil Eelam National Radio broadcasting from Kilinochchi stated that 178 soldiers were killed in the fighting. It said that 143 bodies were taken to Colombo in body bags by the authorities.

These bodies were then embalmed and placed in coffins at three points and handed over to their families. The three points were at Borella, Battaramulla and Madampe where 75, 38 and 30 bodies were respectively disposed of, the Tiger radio alleged.
The LTTE radio also said that 35 bodies were recovered by the LTTE, of which 28 bodies were handed over to the ICRC.

Thus, the Tiger radio claimed that a total of 178 were killed. The radio also claimed that more than 500 soldiers were injured. Of these, 286 were undergoing intensive care, 20 were in critical condition, and 51 had lost their legs or feet.
LTTE Military Affairs Spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan said that more than 100 soldiers were killed and more than 400 were injured.

As far as the security forces were concerned, the official version stated by the Army’s Media Director Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara to the BBC was that 149 LTTEers were killed and 196 LTTEers injured.
The figures for the Army, according to Nanayakkara, were 43 dead, 33 missing in action and 163 injured.
Circles close to the Defence Ministry told this column of casualty figures that contrasted with the official version.
Of the 53 Division, one officer and 24 soldiers were killed; one officer and 35 men were reported missing in action; and five officers and 184 men were injured.

Of the 55 Division, 20 were dead; six officers and 114 men were injured; and there were none missing in action.
According to these sources, 120 of the injured were P1 (serious) and P2 (less serious) and 169 of the injured had been brought to Colombo.
This column also received some details of casualties from informed sources in Colombo. These sources indicated that 88 soldiers in all were killed and 39 were missing in action. Around 475 soldiers were injured, of whom 160-200 were in the categories of P1 and P2.

According to information received by this column, injured soldiers are being treated at Palaly, Vavuniya, Anuradhapura and Colombo.
In Colombo, the casualties are admitted to the Military Hospital, Eye Hospital, Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital and the National Hospital. A total of 122 soldiers were warded at Sri Jayewardenepura and 38 at the National Hospital.

These casualty figures were obtained on the night of April 24. The figures are fluid and subject to change as more authoritative and authentic information comes to light.

Meanwhile, the LTTE returned 28 bodies of soldiers to the International Red Cross at Kilinochchi. The bodies were displayed to the public at Kilinochchi in a violation of norms.
The handing over to the ICRC was done by Paavannan, who interacts with NGOs on behalf of the LTTE.
The Army too was making plans to hand over six bodies of the LTTE to the ICRC. These included three male and three female Tiger cadres.

Damage control
After it became obvious that the military push had ended in a debacle, frantic efforts were on to engage in damage control. The most amusing aspect in this was the assertion that the LTTE had launched the attack and that the armed forces were merely defending their positions.

Apparently, the armed forces were able to launch a full-scale operation in the thick of night into Tiger territory within minutes of being attacked by the LTTE.

It is indeed a pity that these propagandists do not realise how pathetic they appear to the discerning public. Surely, the soldiers laying down their lives in the course of duty deserve better than these jokers and their jocular explanations.

Some changes in military command too are in the pipeline. Brig. Sooriyabandara commanding 53 Division is to take up duties as defence attaché in Washington as Brig. Athula Jayewardena, the incumbent, is due to retire.

Brig. Kamal Gunaratne who commands the 55 Division now will take over 53 Division. Brig. Prasanna Silva of the Special Forces will be in charge of the 55 Division.

In a separate development, the LTTE began withdrawing from Madhu and its environs.
Unconfirmed reports stated on Thursday, April 24, that the armed forces were slowly encircling the Church environs and surrounding areas gradually. It remains to be seen what this portends for the future of Madhu and Madhu Maadhaa.
The military push in the Muhamaalai region was but one more in a long list of similar exercises. It is perhaps the third biggest debacle in this series.

The first was Operation Agnikheela on April 24, 2001; the second was on October 11, 2006; this is the third and also comparatively the lowest of all three in terms of casualties.

Still, this is no consolation as the casualty toll for the armed forces is over 100 killed and over 400 injured.
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake added his own ‘two cents’ to the annals of morbid humour when he compared the casualty toll to that of the Mullaitivu debacle on July 18, 1996, where around 1,200 soldiers were killed or reported missing.

According to the septuagenarian PM, he is happy that the present figure is low when compared to that of Mullaitivu.

Tragicomedy

The conflicting attempts by both sides to downplay their own casualty figures and gloatingly exaggerate figures of the other side seem comical but for the tragedy of the situation.

Be it the security forces or the LTTE, the bulk of those being killed or injured are below 30. Though they fight on opposing sides, these youth (most of whom are from poor families) belong to this country. In different times they would have been the future of this land.

Sadly, they are being mowed down in war and deprived of life even before they know what life is all about. Just as the Light Brigade rode into the Valley of Death because some had blundered, these unfortunate youths go into battle, to do or die without reasoning why!

Let us not forget that the powerful leaders on both sides who send these sacrificial lambs into battle now were allegedly involved in a sordid underhand deal shortly before the presidential elections of 2005.

When it suits them, they share the spoils; when it doesn’t, the innocents are massacred on both sides.
LTTE circles are cock-a-hoop about having proved a point to the racist Rajapaksa regime. But then, it was the same LTTE which brought this government to power through its enforced boycott.

The failure of Jayasikuru and Agnikheela and the success of ‘Oyatha Alaigal’ and the Katunayake attack, etc., demonstrated in the beginning of the new millennium that there was no military solution. This led to the ceasefire and peace talks of 2002.

Now the country seems to be undergoing a sense of déjà vu. The fierce resistance put up by the LTTE on multiple fronts and the Muhamaalai debacle point once again to the simple truth that there can be no military solution.

Misplaced calculations

The Tigers have shown that the Rajapaksa regime’s calculations of winning the war and destroying the LTTE are misplaced.
Will this lead to a reassessment of the situation nationally and internationally? Are the government and its hawkish supporters ready to shelve war and go in for talks? Even if this happens and peace talks materialise, is the LTTE ready to engage genuinely in negotiations for a viable solution within a united but not necessarily unitary Sri Lanka?

If these developments do not happen, is the country destined to see the blood of its youth flow continuously on the sacrificial altar of war? Who has the answers?

As Bob Dylan twanged his guitar and sang in his nasal tones many decades ago, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.”

 (D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at djeyaraj@federalidea.com)

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