THE LTTE unleashed a counter offensive code-named Operation Unceasing Waves IV,’ last Tuesday September 26. Supported by heavy artillery and mortar bombardment Leopard’ Commando units of the LTTE launched a six pronged attack on the Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagar Kovil axis from their staging areas at Alipalai, Pallai and Kudarappu around 1600 Hrs on 26 September. They succeeded in punching through the first bunker line of the three fortified defence lines which were established by the army following the fall of EPS in the LTTE’s Operation Unceasing Waves III’ in April/May.
The army’s southern defences extended from the strategic naval camp at Kilali on the Jaffna Lagoon to Nagar Kovil on the south-eastern shoreline of the Jaffna peninsula. Fierce pitched battles were being fought with bunkers and several army mini-camps falling and some bunkers changing hands several times. Having breached the forward defence lines, the LTTE spearheaded an advance of some 3kms on to Eluthumadduval through Muhamalai along the A9 Jaffna-Kandy road. Mig 27 Ground Attack Jets joined the fray around midnight, pounding LTTE positions. Battles were raging even on Wednesday with casualties mounting up on both sides.
Both the military and LTTE exaggerate enemy’ casualty claims while playing down the number of their men killed and wounded. Since independent verification is not possible, one can only consider the conflicting reports with liberal doses of salt.’ Whilst the military claims that only 23 soldiers were KIA and 200 wounded in this LTTE counter-attack, LTTE claims to have killed more than 150 soldiers and wounded over 500.
The government controlled Special Media Information Centre has so far given the casualty figures as 180 killed and 600 wounded since the latest outbreak of hostilities began on September 3. However, it is now common knowledge that, on the very first leg of Operation Rivikirana’ more than 265 including seven officers sacrificed their lives and more than 750 were wounded.
Operation Unceasing Waves IV,’ also saw the LTTE gaining ground near the key naval pier of Kilalai, which is the southernmost point of the army defences in the Jaffna peninsula. These were the first military reversals the army experienced since the September 3 Rivikirana’ fiasco.
Though the military claims to have repulsed the LTTE counter-attack with the SMIC claiming to have killed 73 Tiger cadres for the loss of 23 soldiers killed and some 200 wounded, in Tuesday’s battles alone, the reality may be quite different. Medical Corps and Sri Lanka Air Force Casvac sources say that dozens of flights were laid on for the evacuation of troops wounded in action. The almost constant drone of An-32Bs and Y-12s flying from the early hours of the morning and even late at night alert residents of Ratmalana, that something more than usual is up.
The action in the Jaffna peninsula was not limited to the LTTE’s Operation Unceasing Waves IV.’ In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, around 0130 Hrs, SLA mounted an operation code named Kinihira II’ moving on Maduvil, north-west of Sarasalai, some seven kms from Jaffna town. The objective of the operation appears to be to expand the army’s area of control north-westwards of Chavakachcheri. By 0900 Hrs, troops regained a further 10 square kms of territory in Maduvil North, re-opening an important supply route to Chava; SMIC claimed 13 army killed and 45 wounded in the action. The army claims to have routed the LTTE and inflicted heavy enemy casualties with over 50 enemy killed in this action. In a diversionary attack, troops from Ariyalai attacked a LTTE bunker line killing twelve.
Anuruddha Ratwatte, Deputy Minister of Defence was quick to make-hay-while-the-sun-shines. The sun did indeed shine upon the Sri Lanka Army, through the dark stormy clouds, which had beset them the weeks before. After the Operation Rivikirana’ fiasco, in which the army took over a thousand casualties, the LTTE may not have expected the army’s surprise thrust towards Colombuthurai on Sunday 10 September (particularly after the heavy losses inflicted upon the army by the LTTE). The army was able to wrest control of about 3ks further south-eastwards from their positions on the outskirts of Jaffna, taking Navatkuli and the Navatkuli Bridge.
Ratwatte made it a point to maximise the mileage to be gained in the forthcoming elections by these tactical moves’ and immediately flew to Jaffna on 12 September, joined by Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte, Chief of Defence Staff and the three service commanders.
Why Ratwatte did not join up with the group of journalists and cameramen in their guided tour of the battlefront on Wednesday September 20 is a mystery. He could have repeated his little number of jumping off’ helicopters etc. Would have won him more votes than he would by the current operation he is conducting.
Last Tuesday 26, another group of selected journalists were flown to Jaffna by the government, but they could not visit the area the army claimed it captured on Tuesday due to continued fighting in the area.
Deputy Minister Ratwatte was again absent, probably pre-occupied with problems in the homefront.’
Unlike the time he answered’ the May-Day’ from besieged soldiers, when the LTTE was hard on the heels of the army; when he sought to apportion blame on the senior officers of the military for the withdrawal syndrome’ etc., this time he had none to blame. Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte attempted to emulate his one time commander Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne by offering to resign his post for the failure of the September 3 Operation Rivikirana.’
During his visit in May, the deputy minister of defence went on record (on national television, at that) to blame the senior officers of the military (specially, those at Palaly HQs at the time of his arrival on the May 18). One would recall that Maj. Generals Janaka Perera, Sarath Fonseka and Nihal Marambe together with a host of other officers were rushed to north from their posts in Colombo in an attempt to stem Unceasing Waves.’ It was their skill, expertise and efforts which in reality halted the terra at the gates of the city of Jaffna and turned the tide of the battle.
Lines would have certainly been drawn on maps and positions marked thereupon to indicate their own and enemy positions, lines of attack, withdrawal etc. as they must, which is a standard practise and requirement in the planning and execution of any military operation. Having chosen the path of politics as his career and not the noble profession of soldiering and unfamiliar with such military practices, the Ratwatte may be excused for his ignorance. But he would be well advised that military operations require military decisions and not political decisions. The time and place for political decisions is not the battlefield – the cabinet or parliament is a more suitable forum for that sort of thing.
What is important is not whether or not the deputy minister can read a military map or whether or not his decision was milit
ary or political, not so much that (if at all) the senior military officers in Palaly HQs were plagued with a withdrawal syndrome.’
By informing the general public on national TV, that, before his arrival on May 18, senior officers were only planning withdrawals and that he had to put a stop to the withdrawal mentality’ and draw a line on the retreat and say that “the army will not move an inch back from the positions they held,” the deputy minister demolished whatever confidence the general public had in the military. A military which is sustained by the public – by their taxes and their sons and daughters. A politician who has neither son nor daughter in uniform perhaps cannot be expected to understand this reality. It is indeed a great pity that the honourable ministers, elected members and those from the national lists, who claim to make great sacrifices, who feel burdened about the poor and downtrodden (going by the campaign speeches we hear these days from various platforms) and plead with the public for a chance to rule the roost, have not contributed their children to the war effort.
According to government media reports, Ratwatte during his last visit to Jaffna, is supposed to have exhorted troops to maintain pressure’ on the LTTE in order to retake lost territory in the Jaffna peninsula.
It is this sheer irony of the fact, that, the person who is supposed to give political leadership to the troops in battle, which involves upping the morale and the fighting spirit of the troops, encouraging them in their efforts etc. goes and does just the opposite: which is tantamount to betrayal of the trust that the military has placed on their political leadership.
Little wonder that, whilst soldiers are going AWOL (Absent Without Leave) in their thousands, officers too are putting up their papers in their droves. Due to this element of morale downing,’ military commanders at all levels had their work cut out for them, to uplift the sagging morale of the troops. It was then left to the Multi Barrelled Rocket Launchers and Artillery which indeed helped, contributing both in their fire-power support and elevating the ebbing morale and fighting spirit of our troops.
The past few weeks’ military operations highlighted the penchant of the army to conduct offensive operations every Sunday. This may seem like a good idea to some, but the LTTE may not take it lying down on this day-of-rest’ for long. Routine and regularity not being the best course of action if one was not to advertise one’s intentions; particularly, when an underlying political strategy shadows military tactics. The success of Kinihira -II launched last Tuesday may have put paid to the impetus of the pre-emptive strike, which the LTTE thought to mount by Operation Unceasing Waves IV.’
Troops having successfully thrust towards and taken Chavakachcheri in Operation Kinihiri’ through Sankathaanai along the A-9 and towards Vannaathipaalam on the Kopay-Kaithady road, opened up a third front in the Colombuthurai-Ariyalai East axis, along the south-eastern side of Jaffna town. Within three hours, troops were able to take the outskirts of Chavakachcheri town, where the LTTE resisted the troop advance in fierce fighting. Artillery and mortars were in action throughout Sunday and well into Monday. Two counter-attacks launched by the LTTE were beaten back by the army with liberal use of MBRL rockets and massive artillery and mortar bombardment. The town of Chavakachcheri, the second largest city in the Jaffna peninsula, which at one time boasted of a population of over 100,000 was levelled to rubble and virtually a ghost-town with just the ruined shells of buildings flattened by artillery, mortars and rockets.
There were no civilian casualties, for there were none within the city, as they had all departed during the LTTE offensive in May. Superior firepower prevailed and the troops consolidated their positions in expectation of the next counter attack by the LTTE.
The tours arranged by the government for journalists (two in as many weeks) to confirm military claims that Chavakachcheri was in government hands has given credence to speculation that, the army is not only conducting a military campaign but also doing their bit (no doubt at the bidding of their political masters) of campaigning for the October 10 elections. The publicity derived will perhaps be helpful. Not only in the war effort but also in the political arena as well. In a war that has been fought spanning two decades, based more on political decisions’ than on military strategy, in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, there is concern about the impact of the current round of military activity on the conduct of the polls, where it is becoming more and more apparent that, the timing of military offensives are determined by political imperatives.
For once, both the deputy minister of defence and the chief of defence staff were united in their task – assigned to them by their commander in chief, theirs was to do or die’ – perhaps not literally; but more metaphorically so – politically.
In the face of heavy casualties on the first leg of Operation Rivikirana’ on September 3, the military mustered its reserves and threw in all they had into battle, in order to achieve this objective. The month of September will no doubt go down in the military history of Sri Lanka as a campaign without equal. Never has the army mounted operation after operation, week after week. Operation Kinihiri-II is the fourth operation mounted in as many weeks.
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, a well known proponent of the military option,’ is reported to have declared at a public rally during his election campaigning, that EPS (Elephant Pass) would be under government control by election day, October 10. Such a statement from no less a person than the prime minister, cannot be easily discarded as election rhetoric.
Meanwhile, while all the attention was focused on the northern front and the election campaigning’ the LTTE stepped up its operations in other areas including Colombo and in particular in the east. Unlike in 1994, when the army cleared the east in preparation for the then elections, today, the status quo has changed. As before, Prabhakaran may yet be a decisive factor in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, if not in the north, then perhaps in the east. The attrition in the east has been consistent and casualties have been mounting in typical guerrilla style operations where the claymore and the ambush reign supreme.