Hours before dawn last Sunday, some 22 Sea Tiger Fibre Glass Dinghies (FGDs) positioned themselves eight nautical kilometres off the shores of the troubled Mullaitivu coast.
Heavily armed Tiger guerrillas sat nervously, clutching their assault rifles. They wore striped battle fatigues and the ammunition pouches strapped to their chests drooped due to heavy weight.
The radio of a Sea Tiger leader, Birendran Master, in one of the boats crackled. That appeared to be the signal to advance. The engines of the outboard motors roared as the flotilla raced towards the coast.
Several blobs began to appear on the radar screen of a Sri Lanka Navy patrol craft in the vicinity. The message was clear. A sea borne attack was minutes away. Fire from the patrol craft hit two boats, one after another. It was too much to cope with the others. The FGDs sped past to beach at Nagerkovil, barely seven and a half kilometres along the north eastern coast from Vettilaikerny.
It was at Vettilaikerny that the Army’s greats like the late Generals Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Wijaya Wimalaratne, made a sea borne landing in 1991 during “Operation Balavegaya.”
It was from here they fought their way to relieve Elephant Pass, which had remained under LTTE siege for nearly a month.
For nine long years thereafter, Vettilaikerny remained a strategic location for the Elephant Pass sector. It was the supply landing point for troops in the area. A radar point under a Naval Sub Unit monitored shipping movements off the north eastern coast, between Trincomalee and Jaffna.
“Operation Oyatha Alaikal” (Ceaseless Waves) on the Elephant Pass defences on December 11, last year. The LTTE established a beach head and offensive led to the LTTE re-capturing the strategic Paranthan junction, which was until then part of the southern defences of the Elephant Pass.
And now, by landing their men in boats at Nagerkovil last Sunday and staging attacks with the support of two other groups who were on land, they had extended their beach head Censored. They had in effect seized control of the north east coast, all the way from Nagerkovil to Kokkutuduwai. That is not all.
They were making a strong thrust to advance north and north west towards Manalkadu and Kodikamam. They fought heavy battles with troops in their bid to proceed.
But their main effort was elsewhere. The Sea Tiger group that arrived in boats at Nagerkovil headed southwards on the coast towards Vathirayan seizing Kudarappu, Chempyanpattu, Alavalay and Mulliyan.
It is here that the security forces defences at Elephant Pass take the shape of a box – a rectangular stretch that juts inland between the coastal villages of Mulliyan and Vannankulam.
Military officials have aptly named the area, which encompasses a battalion headquarters at Vathirayan and a brigade headquarters at Mulliyan, as the Vathirayan box.
Supporting the southern thrust towards the Vathirayan box by Sea Tigers were three companies (or some 450 men) headed by Theepan, Military Wing leader for Kilinochchi.
He and his men made a northern thrust astride the coastal road, past the Chundikulam sancturary.
The Vathirayan box came under simultaneous attack from the two columns making a pincer movement.
When the defences of the Vathirayan box were breached, three officers and 120 men withdrew to the edge of the adjoining lagoon. There was panic when radio messages initially declared that they were all missing. Except for an officer and 24 soldiers, all others returned. Those who re-appeared had brought along with them 81 mm and 120 mm mortars.
One officer in the area, who later returned to a secure location said on the phone that there was very heavy mortar fire on the Army positions. “At first, at least three mortars fell every minute. It later went down to four mortars every ten minutes. That went on for six hours,” the officer who did not wish to be identified said.
At the same time, a little away from the coconut palm fringed Pallai, three teams of the Leopard group, (well trained commando equivalent), each comprising four cadres, entered the Pallai military complex. As men from the Leopard group withdrew, mortars began to rain on the artillery gun positions. Timing devices blasted explosives attached to two Chinese built 152 mm and 130 mm guns. Two others failed to explode.
Riding on the gains of the Sea Tigers and Theepan’s group was Balraj, LTTE’s “task force” leader, with three companies (numbering around 450). Balraj and his group went past the already secured coastal stretch towards Nagerkovil. Army commandos who moved to stall the advance found heavy resistance. At one point, the commandos destroyed a “Stallion,” an improvised armoured vehicle belonging to the Army and captured by Tiger guerrillas during attacks on military installations in the Wanni in November, last year.
From Nagerkovil, Balraj and his men crossed the narrow lagoon and headed towards the A-9 (Jaffna-Kandy) highway, the Main Supply Route (MSR) from Jaffna to Elephant Pass. They seized a four kilometre stretch of the MSR from Muhamalai to Pallai. At Muhamalai they blasted a bridge along the A-9.
The move caused panic. Evacuation of casualties and induction of re-inforcements became a problem. Security forces hurriedly cleared an alternate route. It turned out to be a hazardous one. Though the Censored route was two and half to three kilometres away from A-9 highway MSR at various points, guerrillas who had infiltrated the area were firing Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). Mortars were also falling on the alternative route.
Soon after meeting with President Chandrika BandaranaikeKumaratunga at Temple Trees on Wednesday, the three service commanders – Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya (Army), Vice Admirl Cecil Tissera (Navy) and Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakoddy (Air Force) flew to Palaly. Together with the Army’s Chief of Staff, Major General Lionel Balagalle, they planned an immediate offensive.
The top brass have been ordered by President Kumaratunga to remain in the area until the situation is brought under control.
On Friday Air Mobile Brigade and the third battalion of the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI) led a major assault on the LTTE positions. They breached the LTTE defences in the middle of the four kilometre stretch. They seized nearly a kilometre of the A-9 MSR by Friday evening. They were fighting their way yesterday to capture the remaining stretch.
Shortly after 2.30 am yesterday, guerrillas attacked a bunker line south east of Iyakatchchi forcing the soldiers to withdraw. Troops later fought back and re-occupied the bunkers by dawn. One Army official said 11 soldiers were killed in the incident and 105 wounded. He claimed 22 guerrillas were also killed. The Army has collected their bodies to be handed over to the LTTE via the ICRC.
The LTTE’s latest phase of “Operation Oyatha Alaikal Three,” it can now be revealed, came some 48 hours before security forces planned to launch an operation in the Elephant Pass sector. Yet, some of the plans the LTTE has on hand, it has now become clear, are yet to be executed.
This is particularly the role of Karuna, LTTE’s military commander, who is said to be with an uncommitted reserve of over 1000 cadres.
The men are said to be concentrated in Pooneryn, Paranthan and Murasumoddai areas. Weapons including artillery and mortars are also reported to have been stockpiled in Thanankilappu area.
On Friday, radio traffic and telephone communications to the north were briefly interrupted. During this period, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, had a telephone conversation with Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, to obtain details of the latest developments. She is learnt to have expressed her concern over some of the developments and ordered the security forces top brass to take urgent measures to bring the situation under control. Despite her other official commitments, she is learnt to be keeping a close tab on the fighting that is now going on. This came amidst reports in defence circles that the military leadership had failed to inform the political leadership of the attacks at Elephant Pass and subsequent developments.
Defence Secretary, Chandrananda de Silva, is away on an official tour of some important Asian capitals. It is said to relate to the Government’s campaign to stem LTTE weapons movements.
In marked contrast to his visits to battle area in uniform to the glare of TV cameras, Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, who is credited with the re-capture of Jaffna, and the personal conduct of the much publicised military campaign in the north, was conspicuous by his absence in the north last week.
He only telephoned an Army official to obtain details of developments and requested that he be kept informed.
It was not so long ago that Minister Ratwatte declared that 96 per cent of the ongoing separatist war was over and only a mere four per cent remained to be completed. He even offered to shake hands with LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, when this was done. He set the Sinhala-Hindu New Year three years ago to accomplish this target. Also not present in the north was General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, General Officer Commanding the Joint Operations Command (JOC). After the devastating military debacles in the Wanni, President Kumaratunga ordered Gen. Daluwatte to visit the area and to report back on developments.
The army defenses at Elephant Pass have been anathema to the LTTE. It has denied the LTTE free access to the populous peninsula as well as hindered the establishment of a line of communication between the Wanni base of the guerillas and focal point of the Eelam ethos, Jaffna.
The effective control of Jaffna is dependent on the domination of Elephant Pass. To the LTTE mindset Elephant Pass is much more than a symbol of military presence, it is a major obstacle to the LTTE goal of Eelam.
In the words of LTTE ideologue Balasingham “… the LTTE is fiercely determined to open the gates to Jaffna to reach the cultural capital of the Tamil nation, their strategic goal that the might of Sinhala army cannot contain”.
That has been the psychological drive behind the persistent attempts to overpower the Elephant Pass defenses. That they have failed so far to do so will not deter the LTTE from continuing to do so. Whether it will be their Waterloo depends on the will and ingenuity of the army leadership to counter the initiative the LTTE will strive to retain as the aggressor.
That the LTTE now appear to have gained control of the coastline from Ngarkovil to Kokkuthuduvai, it will confer on them a greater capability of offshore movement to sustain maritime operations and logistics.
It will also facilitate their smuggling operations with comparatively greater freedom than had the army control over a part of the shoreline.
An expensive and risky alternative, which at best has a very limited payload capability. In such an event, it would bring the situation to what prevailed before the Vettilaikerny operation that relieved Elephant Pass from a month long siege.
That the LTTE are continuing with their military offensive even whilst the government is trying to find a political consensus which could lead to negotiations questions whether the LTTE are serious in coming to a dialogue.
The politics of this issue apart, what is apparent is that the LTTE are striving to be in a position of strength should the effort of the government or a facilitator be of any success.
What better than to gain a foothold into Elephant Pass that could pose a threat to army positions.
In this way the LTTE would aim at gaining both militarily and politically.
(The Sunday Times – The Situation Report)