Black Tigers drive truck bombs to FDL
- Major counter attack repulsed in Mullaitivu
- LTTE radio silent after Soosai’s hideout bombed
Bruised and bleeding, the Tigers are not letting up. Barely four days before the country’s sixty first anniversary of independence, had Tiger guerrillas launched a last ditched major offensive against troops in Mullaitivu? Fierce fighting raged for the next three days till the forces finally neutralized the resistance by midnight of February 3. The counter attack was much anticipated. Its objective: Recapturing Mullaitivu town and raising the Tiger flag on February 4.
The offensive was foiled, but, both parties emerged with bloody noses. This is the story:
Late last week, the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) alerted senior officials that Tiger cadres were packing armaments in polythene. The DMI cautioned that the LTTE could attack crossing the Mullaitivu lagoon. The 59 Division had its forward defence localities facing the lagoon.
The 59 Division was alerted, and also instructed to fill some gaps in the forward defence lines, which they did, but baring a muddy stretch of about 1 km. That was the Achilles heel of the Mullaitivu defence line.
On the morning of February 1, an estimated 30 Black Tiger cadres infiltrated the military controlled area, apparently through this unguarded stretch. They attacked a bus and a tractor transporting soldiers with Rocket Propelled Grenades. Initial reports said two Main Battle Tanks were also targeted, but military officials claimed that the reports were not true. The black Tigers functioned as forward observers for the Tiger artillery attacks. Artillery and mortar shells began to rain on the security forces positions. Under artillery fire, more cadres crossed the lagoon. Military officials say estimated 700-1000 guerrillas took part in the offensive, attacking the eastern and western flanks of the 59 Division. The Seven Gemunu Watch (7 GW) battalion attached to the 593 Brigade had just been deployed in the forward defence line. They were caught off guard. The initial attack was so intense that troops pulled back 3 km from their original positions. Additional troops were dispatched to the frontline. First to be deployed was the Air Mobile Brigade attached to the 53 Division, which has been kept in a reserve role in Mankulam.
Despite the induction of additional troops and heavy volume of artillery and multi-barrel rocket launcher fire, guerrillas did not cave in. Their objective became clear through monitored LTTE communications. They were planning to regain Mullaitivu town.
The first account of the Tiger offensive appeared in the pro LTTE website, TamilNet.
“Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (LTTE) forces Sunday morning launched a preemptive strike on Sri Lanka Army (SLA) offensive units that were prepared for an all out assault on Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK). The SLA has suffered heavy casualties, initial reports from Vanni said.”
“At least 3 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) of the SLA were destroyed, LTTE officials have told media,” TamilNet reported. However, TamilNet refrained from following up with the developments. Reason: for the LTTE, it was clear by the second day that the offensive was not going in the way it planned, albeit significant initial gains.
The surprise initial attack was devastating; scores of troops went missing, numbers could not be discussed for their sensitive nature. And some, indeed, returned later in the week.
Leading the battle
Sea Tiger leader Soosai was heard leading the battle. Two most senior field commanders of the guerillas, Banu and Sornam lead the cadres on the battlefront. Guerrillas tried to push the troops beyond the city limit. In the second leg of their mission, they planned to force back the Task Force IV to Oddusudan.
The Commander of the Army, Lt General Sarath Fonseka was commanding the troops from the Operatation Room at the Army Headquarters. He knew what was at stake. He instructed troops to hold onto their new positions and dispatched reinforcements to the battlefront.
On the second day, troops succeeded consolidating their defence lines. As fighter jets and attack helicopters pounded guerrilla positions, counter battery fire and multiple rockets were directed at the cadres who have assembled for the attack.
On the third day, the LTTE made a frantic bid to overrun the forward defence line of the security forces.Black Tigers drove four trucks laden with explosives, blowing themselves up targeting the troops deployed in the forward defence line. Three soldiers were killed and seventeen wounded in the series of explosions.
The explosions were to be followed by columns of guerrillas who would storm the security forces positions. However, the plan fell short of the objective. Troops held on to their positions. Commandos and Special Forces had also been inducted to the frontline. The air force continued to provide close air support, targeting reinforcement of Tiger guerrillas and their artillery and mortar launching positions.
The LTTE offensive was neutralized by the midnight of February 3. The Commander of Army, Lt Gen Fonseka was overseeing operations from army headquarters till 3 am in Feb 4.
Last week, we quoted military officials as saying that they anticipated bitter fighting before the fall of Puthukudiyiruppu. Therefore, the counter attack did not come as a surprise. The LTTE launched a series of counter attacks at the initial stage of the military operations in the Wanni, attacking repeatedly the 58 and 57 Divisions in the Mannar Rice Bowl. What refrained the LTTE from launching a major counter attack since then was primarily the heavy attrition rating it suffered during its effort to halt the military forays into the Wanni.
Last week’s attack was a huge gamble for the LTTE. The attack succeeded in pushing back the troops 3 km from their original defence lines, but it was at a heavy cost. Several soldiers who went missing during the initial guerrilla attack joined the troops later. They have said the initial attack was so intense that they could not hold on. As for guerrilla casualties, they have reportedly seen scores of bodies of slain cadres scattered on the ground.
Later in the week, Commandos and Special Forces troops operating in small teams attacked the guerrillas who came to collect the bodies. According to military officials, the guerrillas did not know of the induction of the SF and Commandos till they were ambushed. Special Forces and Commandos were inducted to the frontline soon after the attack. Their numbers could not be discussed due to the sensitive nature of the issue .
As the 59 Division consolidated their positions, the LTTE turned its guns to Task Force 4. On February 5, four waves of counter attacks were launched against troops of this division, who repulsed each attack. Troops emerged unscathed and, miraculously, did not suffer any casualties, according to military sources.
The Defence Ministry down played the LTTE’s counter attack. No special mention was made of the guerrilla counter attack which lasted for three days. Neither was there any reference to the string of suicide truck bombs. Understandably, the government which has now written off the guerrillas as a military challenge did not want the public to know about bitter battles which took place on the eve of the Independence Day.
Foiled LTTE bid
Finally, four days after the start of the fighting, the Defence Ministry website reported the following version of the event on February 4.
“Sri Lanka Army 59 Division and the Task Force 4 with the assistance of Sri Lanka Air Force fighter craft have foiled an LTTE bid to breach the Mullaitivu defence line.
According to battlefield sources, the terrorists since Sunday (Feb 1) had made a desperate attempt to breach the army forward defence line, west of Nanthikadal lagoon. Heavy clashes prevailed in the area as close quarter battles erupted between troops and the terrorists during the last 72 hours.
Air Force spokesperson Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara told defence.lk that 13 air missions were conducted between 8, last night to 6 this morning targeting LTTE reinforcements, gatherings and strongholds. Israeli built Kfir fighters carried nine out of the total missions while the 4 others were close air support missions by Russian built MI 24 Helicopter gun ships. He said that the terrorists have suffered a heavy toll during the missions, citing operational sources.
Defence intelligence sources said that the abortive terrorist’s offensive was lead by the LTTE’s latest military wing leader Theepan. The aim of the terrorists was to regain lost ground in Mullaitivu to resurrect the morale of their cadres. However, the terrorists have suffered a heavy beating, the sources add.”
The counter attack came in a cropper for the guerrillas. They suffered heavy casualties and failed to achieve the propaganda advantage it was intended for.
The LTTE’s propaganda machinery was tightlipped for most of the week. Finally, TamilNet on Friday posted the following report.
“Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (LTTE) this week seized arms storage from the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) in Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK), sources close to LTTE told TamilNet Friday. Hundreds of SLA crack commandos were drawn into Mannaka’ndal and Keappaapulavu ‘boxes’ and were cut off from their rear supplies during a pre-emptive strike by the Tiger forces, resulting in the loss of more than one thousand SLA soldiers since February 01. An arms storage, which was full of weapons as the SLA was in full preparation to launch its ‘final assault’ on PTK was seized by the Tiger commandos engaged in the preemptive strike.”
“The sources further revealed that there were at least 20 mortars, thousands of shells, several hundreds of assault rifles, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG), RPG launchers and a conservative estimate of one million rounds were among the arms and ammunitions seized by the Tigers. The Tigers had emptied the store of stockpiled arms and ammunitions by the time the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) bombed the location of its own arsenal.”
“Meanwhile, more than 100 SLA soldiers perished in a Black Tiger attack on Tuesday in Keappaapulavu, according to Wednesday edition of Eezha Naatham daily, the only newspaper printed in LTTE controlled territory.”
The report is, obviously, a work of a half baked journo striving to be a fiction writer, but, its intended audience is Tamil Diaspora, the cash cows of the LTTE. This shows how desperately the LTTE wants to impress the Tamil Diaspora who is fast becoming disillusioned with the LTTE’s poor showing in the battle front.
However, the wounded Tiger is a dangerous Tiger. The LTTE has now deployed its ultimate weapon: Suicide bombers.
The fifth suicide attack in the week was aimed at the soldiers of 58 Division advancing to the sea Tiger base in Chalai. A young girl ran towards the troops manning the Forward Defence Line, with her hand into the air – signaling the surrender- amidst a heavy exchange of fire.
A soldier in the frontline smelled the danger. He later said he felt suspicious the way the young woman ran towards the troops in the middle of heavy firing, with scant regard to the danger, a conduct hardly expected from a surrendering cadre. The solder pointed the gun at her, ordering her to stop. An explosion ripped through as the woman exploded her. The soldier suffered P 3 injuries, but his timely act saved the rest of his comrades.
Troops said the suicide bomber looked as young as 14, but, that could perhaps be due to malnutrition, they say. Had the woman succeeded blowing herself close to the troop deployed in the FDL, guerrillas were planning to storm the FDL through that gap. As the long range guns of the LTTE are fast becoming redundant with its territory shrinking, the guerrillas are increasingly opting to use the Black Tigers. This is the first time that the LTTE used suicide cadres in land operations during the fourth Eelam War, though in the previous phases of the Eelam war, Black Tigers were used to target artillery positions of the security forces.
Later in the week, the 55 Division captured the sea Tiger base in Chalai, which is the main launching pad of the sea Tiger craft. The Sea Tiger base was fortified with four rungs of trench cum earth bunds, which were successfully negotiated by the 55 Division commanded by Brigadier Prasanna Silva who was the former Special Forces Brigade Commander, who played a major role in the capture of the Eastern enclave of the guerrillas, Vakarai.
The guerrillas fought tooth and nail to hold the Sea Tiger Base. Security Forces have intercepted LTTE communications, in which Soosai -while, commanding Tiger cadres in Mullaitivu- confessed to his field commanders that his concern is the impending fall of Chalai and not the recapture of Mullaitivu.
Pounded safe house
Meanwhile, on Friday, air force fighter jets pounded a safe house of the LTTE located in Puthukudiyiruppu. A radio silence was followed by the air sorties. The air force later announced that 11 LTTE cadres including a senior leader was killed in the attack in Soosai’s hideout. It is not confirmed whether Soosai was there at the time of the attack.In another development, an Unmanned Ariel Vehicle (UAV) has recorded LTTE cadres driving a Main Battle Tank (MBT) into what looked like a UN office located in Puthukudiyiruppu. The tank was moved there to hide it from air strikes. The Defence Ministry later contacted the UN over the location of the camp and was told that it had been abandoned. Later, fighter jets targeted the tank. It is not confirmed whether the target was destroyed. The LTTE is believed to have two Main Battle Tanks, captured from the troops during the Pooneryn Attack. Earlier, the Air Force targeted another MBT in Dharmapuram.
In other developments, troops of the 57 Division consolidated their grip in the Vishwamadu town. Clearing operations are continuing. Troops of this division also captured the main base of the Ratha Regiment, located in Tharavikulam area. Apart from combat role, the Ratha Regiment has been assigned air defence and intelligence gathering roles within the LTTE.
Late last week, civilians began to trickle into government controlled areas. But, they are still few in number; according to the report from the Wanni, the exodus of IDPs is now heading towards the eastern coast. Staff and patients vacated the Puthukudiyiruppu hospital after it came under repeated shell fire. They moved to Puttumatalan where they set up a makeshift hospital in a community centre. Most of the four hundred patients are now lying in the floor, waiting to be evacuated to government controlled areas. The LTTE has blocked the passage of ICRC staff and patients attempted to move to the safe zone. The LTTE is forcing civilians towards the eastern cost, which is under its control. The eastward exodus comes as the troops are about to box the safe zone, thereby cutting it off from the rest of the guerrilla held pocket. The government is rightfully disgruntled that media and NGOs have downplayed the LTTE’s refusal to allow people to move into the safe zone. That has become a stumbling block to military manoeuvres as the military operations come to its last legs. The rationale of the LTTE’s conduct is self evident: It desperately clings into the hope that an eleventh hour international intervention would stop military operations. Such an intervention is possible only in the guise of humanitarian effort. That requires civilians to live with the LTTE and pay with their lives. This is the inconvenient truth on the Wanni front.