Advancing Forces make
Neither side is publicly saying it, but the fighting has intensified,
as the Northeast monsoon is expected to set in next month, with both
sides hoping to grab vantage positions, before the rains make all
movements in the northern region almost impossible.
Some of the bitterest fighting that began early this month as the
security forces began to breach the impressive bund cum trench zigzag
defence line that the LTTE had built from Nachchikuda westwards,
continued into this week, as the troops advanced a further six
kilometers along this line towards A-9 highway, especially at
Akkarayankulam and Karambakulam tank bund. After these bitter battles,
soldiers are now just two kilometers from the north-south main road at
its northernmost point near the Murukandi temple. Wednesday clearly saw
some of the heaviest fighting and battlefield reports from both sides
clearly indicate the bitter battles fought and sacrifices made. The
following day, there were no less than three separate Situation Reports
issued by the Army, updating mostly the encounters that took place the
previous day from the west to east.
Norwegian ‘aid’ for Tiger bunkers
According to Military sources, the bund cum trench, unlike other LTTE
defence lines that the forces overran earlier, is a tried and tested
defensive system used by both the Indian and Pakistani armies against
each other. To halt the advancing Army, the Tigers have built this
formidable trench line for miles facing the south, using heavy equipment
taken from the INGOs, while the Army and the Air Force were busy
concentrating on engaging the enemy in earlier operations, to regain
territory in their then immediate front. It had been built, first laying
mines on its approaches, then a trench had been cut, especially to
prevent crossing of armour and the earth removed from this trench had
been used to build a bund above it to a height of eight to 10 feet.
Inside the bund are also a series of bunkers, from which vantage the
Tigers are able to mow down the advancing Army and call in artillery
support, with their clear view of the advancing forces.
In hindsight, it can now be said that, had the Air Force Unmanned Aerial
Vehicles, had spotted the massive defence line being constructed in
advance, and got the MI-24 attack helicopters or the jets, to take out
the heavy machinery engaged in building the network, much of this misery
could have been avoided. It is easy for us to say this from the safety
and comfort of Colombo now, but for the valiant forces fighting the most
ruthless outfit on earth, with limited resources, in the heat of so many
operations in their immediate front, it would have eluded them. Besides,
the Norwegian People’s Aid only reported the removal of their heavy
machinery long after the Tigers had done it.
Victory at sea
Thursday also saw sweet victory for the Navy at sea off Iranativu
islands, west of Nachchikuda. According to Military spokesman Brig.
Udaya Nanayakkara, initially, the Army had reported the sighting of two
suspicious vessels off Valaipadu coast. It had been a trap set by the
Sea Tigers to lure the Navy. When two Naval vessels went to inspect the
suspicious vessels they were found to be those of fishermen and a Tiger
flotilla had rushed to engage the Naval craft, not realising that the
Navy too, had come with enough and more back up nearby from its Special
Boat Squadron and the Rapid Action Boat Squadron.
In the ensuing sea battle that began at around 11:30 am and lasted till
3:00pm, the Navy destroyed three large Tiger vessels and seven smaller
Tigers rather die than be wounded
In the coming days, if the Forces do decide to take a wide swathe of the
A-9 Road between Kokavil and Mankulam, ahead of the monsoon, a vital
Tiger lifeline to its positions in the south, up to Omanthai, will be
An important personal milestone too, is coming up for the LTTE Supremo,
still believed to be holed up in the Wanni jungles, that is his 54th
birthday, which falls on November 26. His birthday is preceded by their
Great Heroes’ day on November 25. So, Velupillai Prabhakaran, a man
known in the past, to undertake grandiose operations, to coincide with
these two important days in his calendar, might even be preparing his
final do or die battle.
According to Tamil sources, while Prabhkaran might be savouring every
moment of bitter warfare that is raging across the frontlines, Tiger
cadres wounded in battle, must be preferring to have been killed
instead, as now, there are fewer and fewer government hospitals left in
Tiger held areas to treat them. With the fall of such towns as Tunnukkai,
Mallavi, and Vellankulam, the LTTE has lost at least five government
hospitals situated in those towns.
As the LTTE is reported to have removed all civilians from Kilinochchi
in recent days, the hospital there is now secured entirely for their
wounded cadres and the government hospital at Mulaitivu are the only
known and recognised medical facilities in the areas it controls.
UN double standards
In recent days, we witnessed firsthand, the double standards of the
INGOs, and especially, of the UN outfits operating in the conflict
zones. When marching orders were issued to them, to relocate to Vavuniya,
especially for their own safety, a UN spokesman had the cheek to say
that they were awaiting instructions from headquarters, before making
any move. Later, the Tigers organised civilian demonstrations in the
Wanni to prevent the relocation of INGOs and these international
do-gooders were ready to use the demonstrations there to stay put, until
the government, in no uncertain terms, told them to relocate before
September 29. Our question is can anyone in his right mind make any
protest in the Tiger den without its absolute blessings?
In the light of the Government’s request for the relocation of UN
humanitarian staff in affected areas, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
too tried his utmost to interfere in the Sri Lankan situation, by
issuing a strong message, especially reminding the government of the
importance of a negotiated settlement to the political problems facing
“The Secretary-General reminds all concerned of their obligations under
international humanitarian law, especially in regard to the principle of
proportionality and the selection of targets.”
But, not even a word of admonishment against the Tigers, for terrorising
its own people or for the naked terror unleashed against innocent
civilians in the South. Not even a word about the LTTE refusing to come
to the negotiating table, even with the previous UNP government. So, it
appears that the UN simply wants us to surrender to naked terror.
While we, like all right thinking people everywhere, abhor war and
violence in all its forms, we like to ask why the UN is not shedding
tears for civilians being killed by the dozens almost on a daily basis
by coalition forces in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and through the proxy
war in Somalia. Mind you, these casualties among civilians are being
caused by precision guided weaponry and directed by state-of-the-art
intelligence gathering at their disposal, unlike the second or third
rate weaponry in the hands of our forces. Despite some notable lapses on
the part of our security forces in the past, there have been no
incidents of our forces attacking either civilian funeral processions or
wedding parties, as is often happening in those countries.
If actions of our forces are causing so much civilian casualties, then
the formidable Tiger propaganda network, which even regularly put
battlefield encounters on the net, must be suddenly sleeping.
So no wonder because of this new found even handedness of the UN, its
personnel have become the direct targets of terrorists in those
countries since of late.
Ill winds of warfare
How seriously does the
defence establishment need to take the Tiger threat of chemical attacks?
Army was quick to quell fears, after the LTTE used some sort of chemical
compound against the advancing troops in the Akkarayankulam and
Wannivilakulam areas, early this week. The Military announced that it
was, in fact, canisters of CS gas, a chemical compound similar to tear
gas that was unleashed on the troops. Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath
Fonseka was on record stating that his troops are ready to face any sort
of gas attack by the LTTE and that, counter measures have already been
taken. It is reported that gas masks were provided to frontline troops,
and medical staff in the region have been briefed of a chemical threat.
On September 15, two separate Army units, advancing ahead of the LTTE
trench line between Nachchikudah and the A9 Road, came under gas attack.
On that day, Special Forces had broken through LTTE defences east of the
Akkarayankulam tank and advanced towards the A9 Road. After fighting
erupted in the early hours of the morning, the LTTE had repeatedly
attempted to reverse the momentum of the advancing troops. After the
initial assault by units of the 1st Special Forces regiment, infantry
units from the 6th Sinha, 3rd Gajaba and 8th Light Infantry regiments
were handed over the task of consolidating the newly captured ground. It
was at this time that several soldiers from the 8th Light Infantry
regiment were reported to have shown symptoms of nausea and tearing.
According to reports, 12 soldiers were evacuated from the battlefield
for treatment. Later on, the same day, another group of soldiers
operating in the Wannivilankulam area also came under a mysterious gas
attack. Later, six soldiers from this unit were hospitalised.
Halt the march
The possibility of the LTTE using chemical weapons, especially poisonous
gas against troops in the Wanni, has been discussed in recent weeks.
Karuna Amman, the renegade Tiger leader is reported to have stated to a
Sunday newspaper that he believes that the Tigers would use chemical
weapons to halt the military march rapidly moving towards the de facto
capital of the LTTE, Kilinochchi.
Making the Military more vulnerable to a chemical attack is its sheer
isolation in the vast region to the west of the A9. Almost the entire
civilian population of the region in this area captured by the Army, has
been moved out and are now sheltered mainly in the Kilinochchi,
Pudukuduirrippu and Mullaitivu areas.
The use of a chemical weapon would have serious ramifications to any
State or organisation, even for one of LTTE’s calibre, which has, of
late, given little consideration to international opinion. Yet, the
number of civilian causalities is a factor that even the LTTE has to
weigh in, before it makes a choice of using weapons capable of large
scale human loss. The weather also seems to be another factor, which is
currently stacked against the Military, in a scenario in which the LTTE
unleashes a large scale gas attack. In a matter of weeks, the Northeast
monsoon will be effective in the Wanni region, with winds blowing in a
southwesterly direction. In case of a large scale chemical attack, the
winds will ensure that civilians now trapped mainly in the Kilinochchi
and Mullaitivu areas will be spared and troops operating on the western
flank of the A9, will be rendered most vulnerable.
Air capability and chemical weapons
Though the incident on September 15 is easily dismissed by the Military
as a desperate attempt by the LTTE to stall the Army from marching on to
Kilinochchi, the possibility of the LTTE combining their potential
chemical capability with its newly acquired air power should most
definitely concern the Military hierarchy. After the recent attack on
Vavuniya and Trincomalee, it is now apparent that the LTTE would most
probably use its few primitive aircraft in the near vicinity of the
battlefield of the Wanni, unless they are on a suicide mission, further
south. Bombs dropped by these aircraft on their numerous missions have
not yielded the destructive blows the Tigers may have expected. However,
the delivery of a chemical agent from the air, on the other hand, will
be far more lethal than a mere 25kg bomb.
It is reported that even the United States now considers that a small
‘crop duster’ plane used to spread fertiliser to fields, in the hands of
terrorists with chemical weapons pose a greater threat to its national
security than any smart weapon or 9/11 type of attack using hijacked
commercial aircraft. In this context, frontline soldiers now operating
in the Wanni would be at maximum risk, if the LTTEa opt to combine these
two deadly threats- chemical weapons and air capability in its last
ditch attempt to protect their northern stronghold.
Canine lab tests
The use of chemical weapons by the LTTE is nothing new. In 1990, the
LTTE used locally manufactured chemicals to attack the Army’s Kiran base
in Trincomalee. It was revealed through apprehended LTTE cadres that its
intelligence wing, led by Pottu Amman, was experimenting with poison
gas, using dogs as laboratory test subjects. In the late 1990s, even a
video was recovered from the LTTE, depicting an experiment of a dog
dying after being exposed to a toxic gas. The possibility of the LTTE
possessing nerve gas, such as Sarin, was considered at the time.
It was only a couple of weeks ago, on September 2, that another shock
wave rippled through the Defence establishment, with nearly 300 soldiers
suddenly falling sick. These soldiers from the Henanigala camp in the
Eastern Province, were found to have been victims of cyanide poisoning.
The Government Analyst later found that the fish consumed by the
soldiers was poisoned with cyanide, a substance used mainly by the LTTE
as a means of committing suicide to evade capture. Even though the
investigations carried out by the Police and the Army are not yet
conclusive as to the involvement of the LTTE in the mass poisoning. This
incident has also underlined the serious threat posed to soldiers by
such non-conventional tactics which may be applied by the Tigers,
especially in the current context, when they are fighting a desperate
battle to save their last bastion of territory.
It is also recalled that one of the main reasons for the final
withdrawal from the Elephant Pass camp in 2000, was the poisoning of the
water wells at Iyyacachchi and Pallai by the LTTE. In spite of the
Military equation, this single act ensured that it was not viable to
sustain a garrison of 16,000 or more troops without access to proper
drinking water and ensured the humiliating withdrawal from one of the
Army’s most fortified establishments.
There is little evidence to prove that the LTTE is in possession of
lethal chemical weapons capable of mass destruction. It is also doubtful
whether it has the capability to locally mass produce quantities of
chemicals required for a devastating attack. Yet, it would best kept in
mind that, it was the dismissive attitude of the security establishment,
regarding the LTTE’s air capability that led to the Air Tiger wing now
becoming an embarrassing menace. Although it was known for years, that
the Tigers were attempting to acquire an air wing, the military simply
dismissed that threat, since it was confident that a small aircraft
stood no chance against the far superior firepower of the security
forces. Yet, that complacency was rudely proven incorrect, when the Air
Tigers commenced their operations and to the dismay of many, the
Military was unable to react effectively to the threat.
The LTTE has survived all these years by adopting new technologies and
tactics to fight a far superior military power. In 1996, they brought in
anti-aircraft missiles into the battlefields, which ensured that the Air
Force was grounded for nearly a year, before it adopted counter measures
to the threat. More recently, the LTTE took the Defence establishment
unawares, when it launched air attacks against Colombo. Undermining the
chemical weapons threat posed by the LTTE, would not be in the interest
of the Military, however minute the possibility of the Tigers using
these types of weaponry might be.