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Military Matters


To Kilinochchi or Mankulam?

This week saw one of the most ferocious battles since the security forces started their campaign to regain the Wanni around mid last year.
The LTTE’s much anticipated counter strike was launched along their newly built trench line from the western coastal town Nachchikudah to the deep interior region Akkarayankulam, a fair distance of 18-20 km in length.

This trench line, which is mainly an earth bund of around 7-15 feet at certain places, was built in recent times with heavy machinery cutting across shrub jungles.

In a series of waves, the LTTE attacked personnel of the Army’s 58 and 57 Divisions last Wednesday in a battle that lasted 36 hours. The LTTE claimed to have killed up to 100 military personnel, while the military initially claimed that only nine soldiers were killed. However, with the LTTE claiming that they had recovered the bodies of 29 soldiers and posted pictures of the dead on pro-LTTE websites, the Army said that several soldiers had gone missing in the fierce confrontation.

It is likely that the LTTE used their most elite forces in the counter strike, in the form of the Imran Padiyan and Charles Anthony Brigades, reflecting the significance the Tigers have attached to this particular trench line. These two elite forces have not been utilised to their full capacity in previous battles with the Army, even in Mannar and Northern Vavuniya regions.

The Nachchikudah-Akkarayankulam trench line, though not impressive in any measure, compared to the more established forward defence lines (FDLs) of the LTTE in places like Omanthai and Muhamalai, has however proven to be a formidable barrier against the progress of the military. It has quite literally become a ‘last ditch’ effort by the LTTE to stall the Army juggernaut moving north into their heartland.
The Army’s 58 and 57 divisions, which are now entrenched mainly along this line, have two strategic choices, which the LTTE understands all too well.

One of the main overall objectives of the current military operation in the Wanni is to open up a supply route to the besieged Jaffna Peninsula, which has been cut off from the rest of the country since 1990 due to the Wanni being dominated by the LTTE.
Operation Jayasikuru, launched in May 1997 saw the security forces moving along the A-9 Road from Omanthai and after two years of fighting could only reach Mankulam before being called off.

This time around, the security forces have come within a matter of a couple of dozen kilometres of reaching that important objective – that is opening up a land route to Jaffna. One of the choices the military has, once it clears the LTTE’s Nachchikudah-Akkarayankulan defence line, is to move north along the A32 Road to Pooneryn. This would, for the first time in nearly two decades, open up a main supply route to Jaffna through the Sangupidy causeway. This maybe facilitated by another thrust from the security forces in Jaffna who have the option of taking the Pooneryn Peninsula through an amphibious landing.

As the Army found out the hard way in 1993, Pooneryn is not easily defended against a well-planned amphibious assault. On that occasion the LTTE overran the Army’s main base at Pooneryn killing over 1,000 soldiers and a Navy detachment in the Kilali Lagoon.

A total calamity was evaded only by reinforcements being landed on the northern tip of the Pooneryn Peninsula. What the Army did to save its men and bases in 1993 can be repeated to capture the important stretch of land this time around.

Though the above option of completely securing the A32 Road as a main supply route to Jaffna is most definitely on the minds of military planners, recent fighting has indicated that Kilinochchi, the de facto capital of the LTTE seems to be on the agenda as an immediate objective. Therefore, the second option available for the Army, if it manages to overpower the LTTE defence line from Nachchikudah to Akkarayankulam is to move north-east towards Kilinochchi.

This week also saw the 57 Division moving into the village Murikandi, just four kilometres south of Akkarayankulama Tank on September 4. Consolidation of this area will bring in vital LTTE installations in the Iranamadu and Kilinochchi regions well within artillery and in some cases even mortar range. Heading towards north-east from Akkarayankulam towards Kilinochchi will make the eventual march towards Pooneryn along the western coast easier, with the LTTE’s supply lines being disrupted.

Meanwhile, the Army has been making slow but steady progress along the Vellankulam-Mullaitivu Road. This artery cuts across the Wanni in a near perfect straight line, dissecting the region. This week the Army moved into the town of Mallavi, situated 12 km from the all important Mankulam Junction.

Troops attached to the 57 Division completely captured the Mallavi Town by Tuesday afternoon. It was last Sunday that troops attached to Seventh Sinha Regiment, under the command of Lt. Colonel Kithsiri Liyanage moved into Mallavi Town from the South of Mallavi, after reaching Mankulam-Vellankulam Road from the ninth mile post.

With the fall of Mallavi, defending Mankulam has become even more difficult for the LTTE. It was at Mankulam that the tables were turned against the Army by the Tigers in 1999 in the failed Jayasikuru operation, marking the northernmost point the Army had reached along the A9 in their quest to link up with Kilinochchi, which at the time, was under military control.

Both the Army and the LTTE know the importance of Mankulam. What needs to be seen is whether the Army will march head on to Mankulam along the Vellankulam-Mullaitivu Road or strategically manoeuvre around the town as it did on several occasions in the recent fighting when capturing well defended areas such as Vedithalativu and Thunukai.

However, at least for the moment, all eyes are focused further north on the Nachchikudah-Akkarayankulam trench line. Whether the Army will be able to smash through what is considered the last true outer perimeter defence line of Kilinochchi or whether the LTTE will be able to hold off the Army entering their de facto capital, we should be able to find out in the coming days and weeks.

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