Heavy casualties on both sides
Northern forward defence lines in Muhamalai,Nagar Kovil and Kilaly is a virtual killing field. More blood has been splattered, more men fell dead on this ground than anywhere else in the Northern front. It was also the theatre for some of the bloodiest battles, which were the precursor to the fourth Eelam war.
Tiger guerrillas carried out an all out offensive to lay siege to Jaffna on August 10, 2006, just a week after the simultaneous attacks on several military camps in the East. The battle which lasted for three weeks ended in heavy casualties to both parties. Given the geography and heavy fortification of the northern defence lines, which was then manned by the 55 Division, the largest Military Division of the Army at that time, the attacker is always at a disadvantage. Thus, heavy casualties inflicted on the guerrillas, estimated to be at least 600-800 dead, had a severe strain on the LTTE’s military operations.
Then, a month later the military opted to take the initiative, but the decision cost dearly. Over 140 soldiers were killed and several hundreds wounded, and several main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles were lost when the military tried to make foray ahead of the northern forward defence lines.
A year later on the eve of the 2007 budget , the military attempted to move ahead the northern defence lines and ended with a bloody nose. Again, on April 23, this year, the troops tried to advance southwards,but, it was a tragic repetition of the past. Over 90 soldiers were killed.
The 8 km stretch of forward defence lines of the military running from Kilali to Nagarkovil via Muhamalai is one of the most fortified. The defence lines of the two parties are divided by a no mans land of 700 meters. The first defence line of the LTTE was captured by the security forces in August 2006, and the guerrillas are believed to have fortified their positions with three trench lines. Their forward defence line was sparsely guarded in order to evade regular attacks by the Army’s Special Infantry Operation troops. Behind this line, lie two other trench lines offering multiple obstacles to troops who attempt to push southwards.
The coordinates of the bunkers of the Tiger defence lines are registered in the grid maps of the LTTE. This enables Tigers to accurately target accurately these positions using artillery in case these bunkers fall to the hands of the security forces. Many military casualties during previous battles were due to artillery and mortar fire launched against them when they were consolidating captured LTTE positions.
On November 15, last Saturday, the 55 Division and 53 Division deployed in the northern defence lines broke ahead from their defence localities to advance into the Tiger controlled area. Four battalions of the 53 Division moved from the direction of Kilali, south of the A 9 while a same number of battalions from 55 Division advanced from Muhamalai, north of the A 9. Fierce battles raged till Wednesday, when the two divisions finally succeeded linking their positions.
The military sources claim over 1000 LTTE cadres put up stiff resistance to the troops. They say the Tigers deployed in the northern line are hardcore battle hardened elements within the Tiger ranks. Theepan, who is coveted for halting the Agnekeela military operation, that time with the successful use of artillery and mortar against the advancing columns of the army in 2000, is commanding the Tiger military formations in the northern front. Military officials claim they had inflicted heavy casualties on the Tiger during the last five days of the battle. They say troops have monitored bodies of over 50 cadres scattered ahead of their positions.
According to official figures given by the military, ten soldiers and 50 LTTE cadres were killed in fighting. The Army did not provide the details of the wounded. The military has suspended issuing casualty details. However, in the absence of verifiable information, rumours began to make rounds in the city. Summoning a press briefing, Mangala Samaraweera MP spoke about heavy casualties suffered by the military in the northern front.
His remarks though dwelling hypocrisy and also a crude attempt to seek political advantage, is also a reminder of how the public in this country is kept in the dark about the fate of their sons and daughters fighting to protect the motherland. In the absence of verifiable information and an apparent government policy of feeding the public only with information favourable to it, rumour mongers and political opportunists have stepped in to fill the information vacuum.
However, we understand that the casualty figures are higher than the official count . But, we are not in a position to publish them, given the sensitivity of the issue.
Most casualties were caused by a series of counter attacks carried out by the Tigers to dislodge the forces and also by trappings and anti personnel mines. The LTTE had carried out several counter – attacks against individual battalions. However, since Wednesday, resistance had diminished.
On Friday, the Tigers didn’t direct artillery fire at the military positions in the newly captured position. This, military officials believe, could be due to Tiger cadres repositioning guns. There are reports that artillery batteries had been repositioned in the north of Kilinochchi and registered on the Elephant Pass isthmus, in order to target troops when crossing the narrow strip linking the Jaffna peninsula with the rest of the country.
The LTTE is increasing adopting the tactics of trench warfare in order to delay and possibly inflict considerable attrition on the military.
The fundamental strategy of trench warfare was to defend one’s own position strongly while trying to achieve a breakthrough into the enemy’s rear.
Trench warfare is a tactic of strategy of attrition which envisages to diminish the enemy’s resources while securing own resources.
The Germans actively pursued a strategy of attrition in the Battle of Verdun, the sole purpose of which was to “bleed the French Army white”.
However, the use of trench warfare is rather infrequent since the second world war. Most recently, during the Afghan invasion, the United States deployed small teams of commandos to light up elaborate trench defences of Taliban for air attacks, which effectively wipe out the Taliban defence.
Last week, the advancing troops of the 55 and 53 Divisions had to overcome an earth bund of 15 feet in Muhamalai. The secondary defence line of the Tigers is running parallel to the forward defence lines from 600 meters behind it. Another trench line is built one km from the secondary line towards Pallai.
There are also reports that the LTTE is building an earth bund cum trench of L shape bringing Paranthan and Kilinochchi within it. This is reported to be 8 km in length and last week troops of the 572 troop captured 800meter strip of this bund. Fierce fighting broke up as the troops tried to dislodge the defending cadres. Again casualty details could not be discussed due the absence of verifiable sources.
In the Wanni front, the Task Force 3, which captured Mankulam last week, advanced 8 km eastward, capturing Ambakamam, a deserted remote hamlet. The TF 3 is expected to link up with the 59 Division which is pushing deep into the Tiger hinterland in Mullaitivu. Last week, the 59 Division captured Kumulamunai. Two divisions are expected to link up in Oddusudan, 44 km from Omanthai. This will rid the Tigers from the areas south of Mankulam. The military top brass have hinted the need to relocate the entry- exit points currently located at Omanthai to Oddusudan.
Meanwhile, in the Wanni, Tigers are set to commemorate the fallen cadres in the annual Maveerar Day celebrations. Tiger chieftain Velupillai Prabhakaran will deliver his annual speech on November 27. Kilinochchi is a besiged city deserted by its inhibitants. Mullaitivu, Pudikudiruppu and Darmapuram will be the focus of the celebrations.
A few years ago, what the Tiger chieftain would say on that day could decide the fate of the ethnic conflict. But, since the military seized the initiative from the Tigers , it is na‹ve, if not ignorant to view it with equal importance bordering on reverence, which some analysts of the Sri Lankan conflict were accustomed to do.