Yesterday the Army’s Task Force 1 entered the strategically important Ponneryn town. With the capture of Pooneryn, the military is set for the double envelopment of the LTTE’s Northern defence lines.
Double envelopment is a maneuver warfare strategy which envisages attacking the enemy from both flanks and if the attacking forces succeed in piercing through the enemy flank, a part of the enemy flank will be encircled.
The most notable historical example of this military maneuver is Hannibal’s use of maneuver at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, over 2200 years ago.
With the capture of Pooneryn, troops of Task Force 1, would like to take on the LTTE from its rear end when the 53 Division deployed in the northern defence lines is ordered to move Southwards. A Southward push from the 53 Division is in offing as the LTTE formations in the Northern front is being stretched out and redeployed in other fronts.
However, before any drastic military maneuvers by the troops, the immediate impact of the capture of Poneryn is that it would neutralise the artillery threat to the security forces headquarters in Jaffna.
The military advance into Pooneryn would also expose the Northern defence line of the guerrillas to artillery and multi barrel rocket attacks from its rear. The rear area of the LTTE’s Northern defence lines would also be exposed to increasing activity of the special forces which could lead to disruption of its supply routes.
In this context, the military advance into Pooneryn would compel the guerrilla to vacate the Northern defence lines.
And the longer the LTTE opts to hold onto the Northern defence lines, the longer it would provide troops the opportunity to consolidate in the rear area of the guerrilla defence lines. In such a scenario, retreat itself would be a dilemma as the retreating cadres would be forced to negotiate the path through a series of ambushes awaiting them.
The geography of Pooneryn is well suited for mechanised warfare and infantry fighting vehicles and main battle tanks were deployed in the Western Kilinochchi front. This has increased the mobility of troops as observed in the rapid advance made during the past week.
On Friday night, infantry troops of the 12 Gamunu Watch and the 10 Gajaba Regiment attached to Task Force 1, supported by commandos marched through an open marshy land. By Saturday morning they succeeded in cutting off the Pooneryn- Paranthan (B 69) road, the main supply route (MSR) to the LTTE cadres in Pooneryn. Having cut off the B 69 road at Nallur, they then advanced 10 km on the road to enter Pooneryn town.
The history of Pooneryn is bloody and bitter and the strategic importance of the area is such it has been the theatre of one of the bloodiest battles in the recent military history. The Pooneryn military camp located overlooking the Kilali lagoon functioned as a major deterrent to the movement of LTTE boats in the lagoon till it was vacated in 1996.
In the early hours of November 11, 1993, the LTTE launched a major attack at the Nagathevanthurai naval base and the Army defence lines in Pooneryn. The attack took the soldiers by surprise, though a subsequent court of inquiry revealed that military intelligence had warned of an LTTE attempt to overrun the camp. However troops who were not briefed of the warning did not the expect the LTTE to attack from the direction of the lagoon. It is believed that prior to the attack, the guerrillas succeeded in infiltrating the defence lines in small groups. The troops without a central command was compelled to fight in small groups till commandos were sent in as reinforcement.
One instance of show of valour during the face of enemy was by a young second Lieutenant K W T Nissanka of the Gajaba Regiment, who was a platoon commander at the time.
Second Lt Nissanka, who was wounded in the battle and outnumbered by Tiger cadres, held his position in order to enable his men to pull back in the face of a fierce attack. He ran towards the advancing LTTE cadres, carrying two hand grenades and exploded them killing him and the advancing Tiger cadres.
He was later awarded the Parama Weera Vibushanaya for “his individual acts of gallantry and conspicuous bravery of the most exceptional order in the face of the enemy, performed voluntarily whilst on active service and with no regard to the risks to his own life.”
Thamilselvan, who commanded the LTTE attack on Pooneryn was hit by a shrapnel of a mortar and was evacuated.
Four hundred and forty one soldiers were killed in the battle, 200 soldiers were classified as missing in action. LTTE losses were estimated at 469.
Despite the attack, the Army continued to maintain the base and during the failed peace negotiations between the Chandrika Kumaratunga Administration and the LTTE, it was a cause of dispute. The LTTE demanded the removal of the Pooneryn camp in order to open the Pooneryn- Sandupiddy Road. The government refused and instead offered to pull back the camp by 500 meters in order to facilitate civilian traffic. However talks collapsed with the LTTE’s unilateral withdrawal and sinking of two naval gun boats at the Trincomalee harbour.
The Pooneryn camp was later vacated in 1996 in order to avoid the repetition of the Mullaitivu debacle in which over 1400 troops perished in an LTTE attack on the isolated military garrison.
The Kalmunai point, located at the tip of Pooneryn is of strategic importance as it is the only place in the LTTE held area which comes under 27 km radius, which is the effective range of 130 mm artillery – within the security forces headquarters in Jaffna. Devil’s point located further South is a major launching pad of sea Tiger boats.
Tiger cadres holding Pooneryn put up stiff resistance as the troops pushed Northward and Tiger commanders were heard in intercepted transmissions describing the battle as a make or break battle, according to troops who are monitoring LTTE communications.
By last afternoon, the LTTE cadres have retreated further to the coast, towards the Kalmunai point, from where the troops face sporadic resistance.
Earlier, on Thursday, Task Force 1 captured Devil’s point, which was a launching pad for sea Tiger craft. In the process troops captured Kiranchi, Vallaipadu and Palavi.
In the Kilinochchi front, troops of 57 Division are only 500 metres from the city limits of Kilinochchi town. Troops could see the building of the deserted town, a military officer in the field said.
Kilinochchi is a ghost town, deserted by civilians who have moved further into Tiger controlled areas.
It is not clear whether the troops would move to the town, which is believed to be heavily fortified by the Tigers. The LTTE’s administrative and logistical bases have already been relocated deeper into the Tiger territory.
The 571 and 572 Brigades attacked LTTE positions in the Western boundary of Kilinochchi and a series of clashes took place South of Pudimurippukulam, North of Akkarayankulam.
Meanwhile and the Army decided to limit the opening hours of the Omanthai entry-exit point to four hours. Accordingly, it will be open from 9 am to 1 pm on all days. Security Forces Commander, Wanni, Major General Jagath Jayasuriya informed the ICRC representatives about the decision of the security forces on Friday.
Earlier the pro-LTTE Tamilnet website quoted the political head of the LTTE, Nadesan as saying “the closure of the entry point at Oamanthai in Vavuniya by the government for the past three days has created a human crisis affecting emergency patients and supply of medicines to civilian hospitals. By imposing a sanction on food, medicine and by maintaining an inhumane economic blockade, the Sri Lankan government is pinpointing the war at the civilians, disregarding international norms to be observed. The indications are that Colombo is adamant in pursuing an aggressive war.”
Meanwhile, Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has told the ICRC to inform the LTTE to pull back its entry-exit point to Oddusudan at the entrance to Mullaitivu.