Military Matters

Advancing Forces make
bitter sacrifices

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 craft.

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 cut.
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 Sri Lanka.

“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?    

The 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.

EPS lessons

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.