* Heavy casualties as 7,000 troops launch major offensive and LTTE counter attacks
* Army in new recruitment drive to form Task Force 5; but war to continue in 2009
Last Tuesday, some 7000 troops fought the Tiger guerrillas in what was their fiercest battle ever in the ongoing Eelam War IV.
Their major thrust, with enormous firepower, was directed at regaining control of Kilinochchi, until months ago the political power centre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Troops fought pitched battles in five different fronts. The guerrillas, who have now begun to throw their hardcore cadres into battle, offered stiff resistance to prevent the fall of Kilinochchi. In at least two fronts, troops were able to secure little more ground whilst in others they were forced to return to original positions from which they began their advance.
The fact that adversaries give exaggerated counts of their rival’s casualties during wars is too well known. It is no different in Sri Lanka. The point has been made quite clearly in the past few weeks by international news agencies and global television networks. They said that both official and guerrilla casualty counts are regularly exaggerated by each other. Independent verification is not possible since the media are not allowed into the battle areas, they would repeat when giving accounts about the ongoing separatist war in Sri Lanka.
This week’s picture of troops trying to cross a ditch-cum-bund built by Tiger guerrillas to defend their locations in the Wanni region.
Unlike in the past, for reasons that are too obvious now, counts that are credible, obtained from unimpeachable military sources, cannot be revealed either. Otherwise, the public who fund the war effort would have been able to discern better the course of events, the achievements made by the troops and the sacrifices they make. It would also give the world outside a better understanding about the ruthless enemy the troops have to face.
In the past weeks, talk was agog at the highest levels of the defence and security establishment of a concerted major military thrust to re-capture Kilinochchi. The matter has been the subject of intense attention in not only Sri Lanka but also the world over. With news that Kilinochchi would fall anytime now, I had occasion to meet and chat with foreign journalists who had come to cover the event which was expected to materialise within days. Most have left.
It began just after midnight that signalled the dawn of Tuesday. Troops of the Army’s 53 and 55 Divisions broke out of their defended localities at Muhamalai. The frontage here runs across the thin isthmus that links the Jaffna peninsula to mainland Sri Lanka. The 53 Division advanced towards guerrilla positions on the western side at Kilali. Troops of the 55 Division, who now occupy what was once the first line of guerrilla defences, advanced from locations east of the now defunct entry- exit point at Muhamalai.
The two Divisions engaged guerrilla positions ahead of them in bitter gun battles. It was only last week a senior Army officer told The Sunday Times (Situation Report), “Since the re-capture of the first line of guerrilla defences at Muhamalai, they (the guerrillas) have inducted more hardcore cadres to the second line. They have also strengthened Pallai (south of Muhamalai) and Kilaly areas.”
As the fighting continued, the guerrillas offered stiff resistance. However, they were then unaware that troops here were only engaged in a deception and were not the main elements in a fierce thrust towards Kilinochchi. After a short while, they had withdrawn to their original positions. Such a fierce thrust came only at 6 a.m. on Tuesday simultaneously from three other different fronts. This was six hours after the 53 and 55 Divisions had staged a deception by feigning to fight their way through to Kilinochchi. See map of Jaffna peninsula.
The Battlefront this week
The Army’s Task Force 1 (the precursor to a 58 Division) resumed its thrust from Kunjiparanthan. They had earlier reached a location ahead of this village after advancing along the Pooneryn-Paranthan (cum Kilinochchi) road. From here, it is barely five kilometres to the strategic northern town. Troops fought gun battles in this area ahead of a ditch-cum-bund built by the guerrillas. It extended in a southerly direction and thereafter veered eastwards resembling a large “L” shaped contour.
A unit, which the LTTE had created for an offensive in the north, Yarl Chellum Padai, Malathi “Regiment,” a unit created in the name of a female guerrilla leader and the Sea Tigers, were deployed to stop the advance of troops in this sector. However, troops here moved forward some 500 metres on a flank extending nearly a kilometre from their positions in the north to south. See map of western Wanni.
Troops of 57 Division continued with two different thrusts towards Kilinochchi. The bitterest battles on Tuesday were fought at Adampan. Heavy rains had made the terrain there muddy. Some of the troops who succeeded in moving towards the ditch cum bund ahead found themselves knee deep in mud. This is the sector where the fiercest battles were fought and a number of troops were declared missing in action. Here again, the figures cannot be revealed for reasons that are obvious now. The other thrust from troops of the 57 Division came from their new locations southeast of the Iranamadu irrigation tank. This is in an area north of Murukandi. Troops have seized nearly a kilometre stretch of guerrilla dominated territory. See map of eastern Wanni.
The fighting in the western Wanni sector ended only in the morning of Wednseday. There were intermittent skirmishes in some areas in the next two days.
Yesterday, heavy fighting broke out after guerrillas launched a counter attack on troop positions at a point between Terumurukandi and Iranamadu. The location is east of Adampan. Reports last night said both sides suffered heavy casualties. Troops had to re-position their defended localities in a part of the sector.
The dawn advance by troops of Task Force 1 and 57 Division, at first, was without encounter. “Thereafter, the guerrillas attacked in four waves, one after another,” a high-ranking Army officer in the Wanni sector told The Sunday Times. He spoke on grounds of anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media. The officer said, “there were several close quarter battles where the guerrillas used small arms and machine gun fire. In others, mortars began to rain in. It was a mortar monsoon.” His remarks further underscored fears of the Army’s Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) that guerrillas were still smuggling in large quantities of military supplies.
Intelligence sources said they had reason to believe the guerrillas had been replenishing stocks of ammunition, artillery shells, mortars, grenades and other items. Even the Navy confirmed that this was going on when they claimed yesterday that they had destroyed four guerrilla attack craft. According to the Navy, these craft were reportedly escorting a vessel carrying “war like” material in the seas off Mullaitivu. According to the same sources, the guerrillas are reported to have negotiated a procurement deal in a Southeast Asian country recently.
Several thrusts by the Army towards Kilinochchi in the past months were somewhat singular in nature. Through them, columns that were advancing aimed at seizing guerrilla-dominated territory ahead of them. Tuesday’s offensive involving three different Divisions, however, was one that was co-ordinated with the sole aim of regaining control of Kilinochchi during one major thrust. Army officials say troops who are consolidating the new stretches they have regained would continue to move forward towards Kilinochchi.
It was only on December 6 and 10, the guerrillas launched counter attacks on troops of the 57 Division that tried to advance towards Kilinochchi. However, the guerrillas offered stiff resistance and prevented them from reaching the area. As a result of ongoing operations, troops have been able to secure the A-9 (Kandy-Jaffna) highway from Omanthai (the previous entry-exit point) up to Murukandi, a distance of 45 kilometres in the recent weeks.
Tuesday’s offensives came independent of the advance of troops of the Army’s 59 Division towards Mullaitivu. This is in the Weli Oya sector. Troops in this sector are headed in a northerly direction towards Mullaitivu. Their advance in a westerly direction is to link up with troops of Task Force 2 and 3.
A new Task Force 4, established on Saturday, was deployed in an area in the Weli Oya sector yesterday. Troops in this sector are yet to reach the fortified defences of the guerrillas.
The setting up of a Task Force 5 is now on the Army’s drawing boards. With this in mind, the recruitment drive is to be stepped up. Last year, more than 32,000 responded to the Army’s recruitment drive. This was the result of wide publicity to the territorial gains made by them. From January to November this year, 38,000 have responded. The Army also hopes to expand its specialised units including Special Forces and the Commandos.
Guerrilla leaders in the Wanni who have been meeting civilian groups, both in their homes and IDP (internally displaced persons) centres have told them this is their “last battle to defend the Tamils.” They have said that they had made pledges to their leader to fight to the last to prevent the fall of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.
With Tuesday’s major setback, any future intensified thrust towards Kilinochchi or Mullaitivu is not likely until the end of the year. It clearly means Eelam War IV will continue in 2009. So will the oft repeated claim of re-capturing Kilinochchi and thereafter Mullaitivu.