Military Matters

 Tigers lost sight of Pooneryn for Kilinochchi                         

By Rohan Abaywardena in the Wanni
For some time, the publicly stated priority goal of the government and the Army Commander has been the capture of the LTTE administrative nerve centre, Kilinochchi. As a result, the Tigers had marshalled much resource in that area, while vowing to defend it at any cost and this was one of the key reasons that facilitated the lightning capture of the strategic Pooneryn in the early hours of last Saturday and effectively sealed the Western Coast for Tiger arms smuggling from South India.

On Monday, we met the man who has been overseeing the bulk of the operations against the LTTE as directed by Army Commander since the beginning of the current offensive in the latter part of 2006, Wanni Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya at his headquarters in Vavuniya, just before he visited newly captured Pooneryn.

This former Royal College boxing captain of 1977, who is not easily rattled or ruffled, told The Nation that what really facilitated their lightning strike on this last LTTE stronghold on the Western front, as much as the surprise factor was the favourable behaviour of weather gods. While the weather had made most terrains in the Wanni a quagmire a few weeks earlier, things had dried up nicely by last week for greater use of armour. This had helped them to make a dash to Pooneryn across a wide front, especially throughout last Friday night with the aid of moonlight.

To add a footnote, Gen Jayasuriya is the youngest of four brothers, all of whom boxed for Royal College with distinction in the 1970s and won College boxing colours. If this writer’s memory serves him right, during this period at least two other brothers captained the College boxing team before him. They are Sumith (eldest) and Nimal (third), who are both now domiciled in the United States. Sumith also served in the Sri Lanka Navy as an officer, prior to migrating to the States.

To borrow a cliché, this professional soldier is known to be ‘as cool as a cucumber’ in the heat of a battle, according to men who have fought alongside him. Last July, when a Tiger suicide team infiltrated the Wanni Command base and called in a barrage of artillery with pinpoint accuracy using GPS instruments, his men say, Gen Jayasuriya was in the thick of the counter measures, instead of taking cover in a bunker as provided for in all bases for emergencies. So fortune indeed favours the brave!

In that attack, two propeller driven aircraft from the LTTE’s rudimentary air force also dropped at least four bombs on this base, but all of them did not explode and one of the Tiger aircraft was destroyed by an air force fighter jet as it was fleeing back to its base after the attack.

Though the rumour mill has been working overtime trying to give an exaggerated casualty toll in the Pooneryn battle, Gen Jayasuriya concedes that they suffered casualties, not due to heavy resistance by defenders or due to mines and booby traps, but mainly to 81mm mortar attacks from the Paranthan side from withdrawing Tigers, which had continued even after the capture of Pooneryn. The Tigers had laid an elaborate defensive structure facing the Jaffna peninsula expecting a military assault on Pooneryn from across the Kilali lagoon, but their mistake was they had not expected an attack from the rear.
This week, we also had the opportunity of visiting two frontline areas. Due to the vastness of the terrains recaptured and the general poor state of jungle tracks widened for military advances, we were only able to see parts of areas cleared by Task Force 11 operating West of A-9 Highway between Omanthai and Mankulam and some areas recaptured by 59 Division on the Mulaitivu front on Monday and Tuesday. We undertook both journeys in Unicorn armour plated trucks built to withstand bullets and most mine blasts, constantly accompanied by Sgt. Maj. R.K. Samarawickrema clutching a T-56 assault rifle and often donning a heavy flak jacket and helmet like us.

On Tuesday, we were able to view some live drama fought by the men of 11th Gemunu Watch, albeit from the safety of a few kilometres to the rear, in the outskirts of the newly captured vast village of Kumulamunai on the other side of the Nayaru lagoon. Although by the time we visited the southern outskirts of the sprawling village, troops had already advanced beyond its northern boundaries but because of enemy snipers we were not allowed into it, considered the gateway to both Mulaitivu to the North East and Alampil to the East, where the Sea Tigers have a major presence.

On this front we first visited 59 Division headquarters at Nelum Wewa, Weli Oya. It was around noon when we reached there from Vavuniya Wanni Command Headquarters, where we stayed the previous night. It took more than three hours to cover this distance by van, mainly due to the poor state of roads in the Weli Oya belt. It must be noted that some of the repairs being done to those roads are more like a joke, where tar was being applied to gravel roads without a single layer of metal beneath.

After a tasty meal at the officers’ mess, the media liaison officer of the Division, Maj. J.M.S. Jayaweera immediately provided an amiable officer to be our guide and we soon departed to the front with this officer Lt. Ranjith Vitarana. After a rough ride lasting more than one hour, on a newly cut road through thick jungle, we arrived at the field headquarters of the 11th Gemunu Watch Regiment commanded by Lt. Col. Priyanka Fernando.

Here, no sooner the commanding officer greeted us; his command centre radio began to crackle about a soldier being hit by sniper fire in the frontlines north of Kumalamunai and a lance corporal who went to the aid of that soldier too being hit by a sniper on one of his legs. Immediately, the Lt. Colonel took charge of the situation on his radio and barked orders to rescue the wounded man somehow. Knowing what had happened, the enemy fire too intensified from all directions making it a most difficult task. Then came urgent appeals for artillery support and especially smoke shell fire to give cover to the rescuers.

We even heard some heated words as there was a slight delay in the firing of smoke shells. But by the time rescuers had got to them both were dead. The soldier had a chest wound, but Lance Corporal Chandana Pradeep, who went to his rescue simply died of bleeding from his leg wound as the rescuers could not reach him in time. While this entire drama was being played out before our eyes, Lt. Col. Fernando who was without lunch and continuously on his feet at the radio, requested us to proceed to the southern approaches to Kumalamunai village to see the impressive bund-cum-ditch bunker line of the LTTE that the forces had overrun the previous week to take the village. We were not allowed to go beyond this point because of the sniper threat.

Here we came across two bridges destroyed by the fleeing Tigers. One was a small bridge that had been totally destroyed and now replaced with a Bailey Bridge by army engineers and the other, a much bigger steel bridge, put up by donors after the tsunami tragedy of Boxing Day 2004, had been partially blasted and the army engineers were putting up a temporary bridge over a 90 foot damaged span under the command of Capt. Lalith de Silva of the army Engineers.

While we were at the big bridge, bodies of both dead army men were ferried back to the rear along with another casualty in pick up trucks. Here on the approaches to this village we also came across the mortar support unit of the 11th Gemunu Watch, which was armed with 120 mm and 81 mm mortars. We soon found the reason for the slight delay in their fire support. One shell was stuck in one of the 120mm guns and another 120mm gun was stuck about two feet into the ground after repeated firing. In order to avoid misunderstandings, these rear fire support units now also include Special Forces personnel.

Later, we returned to the field headquarters of the 11th Gemunu Watch, and Lt. Col Fernando was yet in his command centre without lunch. Here we had just missed a very moving ceremony, but were able to view it as he had got his men to record it for posterity. Instead of just despatching the bodies of two valiant men, both had been accorded a military ceremony by their colleagues with the National flag draped over the bodies.

Though not a single fighting man made any complaint to us, we must mention here that there are many shortcomings, amidst which these men in the frontlines are performing. First of all, it must be noted that there are no qualified doctors to treat the wounded. At this field headquarters the medical team was headed by male nurse Sgt. Maj. H.M. Jayatillake and the equipment he and his team had were abysmal. The nearest hospital is at Sampath Nuwara in Weli Oya, some 30 kilometres away. From there, of course, all seriously injured are airlifted to hospitals elsewhere and others are treated by qualified doctors available there. We at once wondered what has happened to our service clubs who are more adept at organising dinner dances.

These units definitely need things like better and adequate water storage containers and if possible more bottled water. We are certain, considering the situation, the Army is doing its best for the men, but why cannot the well to do in civil society come forward to assist the army in this difficult hour when it is battling on so many fronts for the future of all of us. At this field headquarters, we also saw a nearly new armour plated single cab Tata Pick up that the unit had managed to capture from the enemy despite valiant efforts of Tigers not to lose it.

The vehicle’s odometer indicates just 32, 906 kilometres. According to Lt. Col. Fernando his forward spotters had first seen the double cab, which was moving to evacuate Tiger injured, while their unit was making moves to advance their line. He had immediately despatched a team to take it out and Cpl. H.H.D. Tennyson and four other soldiers had gone beyond the call of duty to halt it. When their T-56 weapons could not pierce its armour they had managed to hit it with a LMG. The driver had nearly got away despite the vehicles tyres being hit, but one of the LMG bullets had hit his leg causing him to crash the vehicle.

As a reward, all five men are to be accorded field promotions and Cpl. Tennyson had been granted 30 days leave in addition for his leading role. The Tigers had tried their best to retrieve the vehicle, but after a valiant effort, the men of the 11th Gemunu Watch had held on to it. Along with the cab, troops had found in it a T-56, an LMG and a RPG launcher.

When we visited the 59 Division again in the night on our return journey, its Commander Brig Nandana Udawatte was not there as he had gone on leave, the acting Commander Col. N. D. Wanniarachchi was very upbeat and hinted that before our report comes out his men could be in Alampil.

Next week we will publish our account of the tour of the Task Force 11 area visit.