At Muhamalai LTTE Forward Defence Line on May 31, 2006: Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) chief Maj. Gen. (retd) Ulf Henricsson takes a look at SLA fortifications across the no man’s land. Three months later the Swedish Maj. Gen. accused the LTTE of triggering the bloodiest battle in the north since the signing of the CFA in Feb 2002.
Immediately after representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) left the Muhamalai entry/exit point on the evening of Aug 11, 2006, the LTTE launched a coordinated artillery and mortar attack on the Jaffna frontline. The LTTE directed fire at SLA fortifications, which straddled the only entry/exit point to and from the Jaffna peninsula. The SLA suffered heavy losses and within hours abandoned some of its frontline positions and retreated. The LTTE units fought their way across no man’s land to seize abandoned SLA fortifications, including the Muhamalai entry/exit point.
However, the LTTE failed to sustain the momentum, though it made rapid progress during the initial assault spearheaded by some of its best units. The SLA admitted losing 202 officers and men in battles from Aug 11, 2006 to Sept 6, 2006, while 49 officers and 851 men received injuries. The majority of them died in assaults on SLA defences at Kilaly-Muhamalai (western flank) and Nagarkovil (eastern flank). During the first day alone, the SLA lost 132 officers and men, while about 100 were wounded. The LTTE, too, suffered heavy losses (Ten-day battle claims 132 soldiers, over 400 attackers with strap line Forces claim Kfirs hit two more long range guns––The Island Aug 21, 2006).
In spite of heavy losses, the SLA fought back causing the LTTE, initially to pause its offensive action and then retreat. Having neutralised the immediate LTTE threat, the SLA launched a counter offensive in the first week of September, 2006, to evict the LTTE from some of its frontline fortifications at Muhamalai (Forces seize Tigers’ Jaffna frontline; any military aggression on their part would entail military costs to them-Foreign Minister––The Island Sept 11, 2006).
LTTE misses Jetliner carrying 900 men
Before discussing the situation in the northern theatre of operations, it would be necessary to examine the circumstances under which the LTTE mounted the multi-pronged assault, while Norway was making a desperate bid to get the warring parties back to the negotiating table. The LTTE walked away from talks in late 2003 during the tenure of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The LTTE intended to deliver a massive blow targeting the SLA and the SLN at Trincomalee before opening a new front at Muhamalai. The success of its offensive action at Muhamalai hinged on its ability to overrun the place. The SLA and the SLN in Trincomalee. The LTTE, on Aug 1, 2006, launched a devastating assault on SLA bases in Trincomalee causing concern among military top brass. But, its main target was the SLN’s largest troop career ‘Jetliner’ carrying several hundred unarmed officers and men to the Trincomalee harbour. The LTTE launched a dozen boats, including stealth craft laden with explosives from Sampur, though Captain D.N.S.C. Kalubowila, the senior officer in charge of the vessel managed to reach the harbour safely. Had the LTTE succeeded in sinking ‘Jetliner’, which had almost 900 officers and men onboard, the consequences would have been grave. Captain Kalubowila is currently Sri Lanka’s Defence Attache in New Delhi. The destabilisation of Trincomalee would have had a devastating impact on SriLanka’s military strategy; Jaffna would have been rendered vulnerable without the Trincomalee-Kankesanthurai sea supply route.
The SLA lost control of its Main Supply Route (MSR), to Jaffna way back in 1990 during the onset of eelam war II. The SLA never recovered from the 1990 debacle, though successive governments made half-hearted efforts to restore the MSR, with ‘Operation Jayasikurui’ being the last offensive conducted in 1997 to realise the objective.
Although the LTTE failed to achieve its key objectives in the east in Aug 2006, particularly the destruction of ‘Jetliner’, the group’s Kilinochchi leadership most probably felt that it could go ahead with the offensive on the Jaffna front and succeed. The LTTE deployed everything it had against the SLA’s Jaffna frontline and for almost three weeks, fought fiercely until the SLA launched an offensive to evict the LTTE from some of its frontline positions. In the early hours of Aug 13, 2006, a group of sea-borne LTTE cadres attacked the SLA’s Allaippiddi-Kayts defence line (Forces thwart fresh sea-borne attack in north––The Island Aug 14, 2006). It was a desperate attempt to keep the LTTE initiative on track.
Mangala on LTTE offensive
Having beaten back the LTTE offensive in Trincomalee, the SLA launched offensive action targeting Sampur. The LTTE abandoned Sampur on Aug 4, 2006 as the SLA stepped up offensive action in the Trincomalee District. In the aftermath of the liberation of Sampur, the then Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera declared that in spite of LTTE aggression, the GoSL was committed to a negotiated settlement. Minister Samaraweera reiterated Sri Lanka’s commitment to the Oslo-led peace initiative, while emphasising the need to face the LTTE’s military challenge. Addressing the Colombo-based diplomatic community at an official function, Minister Samaraweera didn’t mince his words when he warned the LTTE of grave consequences of its actions. He said its military action would prove counterproductive. The international community didn’t take the Foreign Minister’s warning seriously as Co-Chairs to the Sri Lankan peace process felt that in spite of the SLA’s superiority in numbers, the LTTE was able to overwhelm the military.
ICRC silent, LTTE seeks ceasefire
The ICRC never made known its position on the LTTE attack on the Muhamalai entry/exit point public, though it was aware that the closure thereof would severely inconvenience the civilian community. The international community and civil society organisations remained silent. They remained quiet as long as they felt that the LTTE could achieve its military objectives in the Jaffna peninsula. But, once they realised that the LTTE offensive was doomed they launched a campaign to pressure the government to re-open the gateway to Jaffna under the auspices of the ICRC. The military rejected the proposal. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the road wouldn’t be re-opened again under the supervision of any third party. He stressed that the military wouldn’t even consider re-opening until the military brought the ongoing offensive action to a successful end. (Jaffna won’t be accessible overland––The Island Sept. 28, 2006). Having failed to defeat the SLA in Jaffna, the LTTE, with the support of the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and other international players as well as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), demanded the immediate re-opening of the entry/exit point. On the day before, The Island revealed the GoSL’s decision not to re-open the gateway under international supervision, the then LTTE Political Wing leader, S. P. Thamilselvan was in Kilinochchi to discuss restoration of the overland route. Shortly before the SLMM chief, Maj. Gen. (retd) Lars Solvberg met Thamilselvan, the SLAF mounted a heavy attack on an LTTE base close to the Mullaitivu-Paranthan road. During the discussion in Kilinochchi, Thamilselvan demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities. The Defence Secretary refused. Having beaten back LTTE offensives directed at both Trincomalee and Jaffna, the tough talking Gajaba veteran felt that the GoSL’s counter attack was on track and there was not reason to stop the offensive. The LTTE realised the growing danger in a sustained GoSL offensive, particularly in view of efforts to cripple its overseas arms network. The LTTE couldn’t stomach the loss of a ship in an SLN operation on Sept 17, 2006, 120 nautical miles (225 kms) off Kalmunai. It was the first successful SLN operation since the destruction of an LTTE vessel on June 14, 2003. (This issue was discussed extensively in part 39 and 40 in the War on terror Revisited series).
The closure of the Muhamalai entry/exit point deprived the civilian community of an opportunity to leave the peninsula. Despite severe constrains, the SLN took on the challenging task of maintaining regular movements between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai after the ICRC refused to join the humanitarian mission due to LTTE pressure. The LTTE felt that the GoSL would be compelled to re-open the access, if it found it impossible to sustain the Trincomalee–Kankesanthurai sea route.
LTTE initiated Aug offensive-SLMM
The SLMM, too, remained mum on the LTTE offensive launched in Aug 2006, while those supportive of the LTTE’s project blamed the GoSL for initiating the Jaffna battle. They conveniently turned a blind eye to the LTTE causing the Mavil-aru crisis on July 26, 2006, the attack on ‘Jetliner’, Trincomalee SLN base as well as other SLA and SLN bases on Aug 1, 2006 and the Aug 11, 2006 assault on the Jaffna frontline. Instead, the GoSL was accused of initiating the action. The Island raised the issue of responsibility with the SLMM mission headquarters situated in Colombo on many occasions in the wake of the LTTE and its supporters blaming the GoSL for the situation in the Northern Province. In early Sept. 2006, the SLMM disputed the LTTE claim that the GoSL had triggered the Jaffna battle. In a special report authored by one-time Swedish head of the SLMM, Maj. Gen. Ulf Henricsson, which dealt with the situation in the Jaffna peninsula, the mission asserted that the LTTE was responsible for the offensive. The SLMM chief pointed out that the Tigers had advanced over the SLA’s forward defence lines near the Muhamalai entry/exit point, while units landed on several beaches in the south and on Kayts and Mandaitivu islands. Commenting on the LTTE claim that it had no option but to respond to artillery strikes launched by the SLA, the SLMM said, “Considering the preparation level of the operations it seems to have been a well prepared LTTE initiative.” The military appreciated the SLMM’s belated comment. The SLMM statement came in the wake of the SLA evicting the LTTE from Sampur after repulsing an attack on Muttur. The LTTE reacted angrily to the GoSL move to establish an SLN base at newly liberated Sampur (SLMM blames LTTE for Jaffna battle-The Island Sept 8, 2006).
Buoyant with success on the battlefront, the GoSL intensified offensive action in the northern theatre. On the morning of Sept 6, 2006, Kfirs targeted LTTE positions at Iranamadu and also a point north of Iranamadu, while the then Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar was having a discussion with LTTE leaders at Kilinochchi. The Kfirs zeroed in on the LTTE after the SLAF flew Brattskar and his deputy to Kilinochchi (Kfirs bomb Vanni as Norwegian envoy meets Thamilselvan––The Island Sept. 6, 2006).
GoSL takes tough stand
Contrary to expectations among the diplomatic community, the GoSL took a tough stand against the LTTE. President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered air strikes immediately after the LTTE had closed the sluice gates of the Mavil-aru anicut. The SLAF mounted three sorties on the evening of July 26 between 4.30 p.m. and 5.30. The air strike was the first since retaliatory attacks during a battle between an SLN Task Force escorting the troop career ‘Pearl Cruiser’ on May 11, 2006. The GoSL on April 25, 2006, launched its first air strike on Sampur since the signing of the CFA on Feb 23, 2002 in response to an LTTE suicide attack on Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka a short distance away from his office at the army headquarters.
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa on April 6, 2006 told Norwegian Special envoy Jon Hanssen Baur that the LTTE could be neutralised through military means. The Defence Secretary stressed that in spite of what others thought of of the LTTE military capability, it could be defeated militarily. The Norwegians disagreed due to the misconception that the LTTE fighting forces were superior to that of the GoSL. Obviously, those supportive of the LTTE went by the US military assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the GoSL forces. Obviously, the US report was made available to the LTTE by some of those who had access to it. The then UNP administration never realised the danger of giving unrestricted access to a foreign power to inquire into the state of GoSL forces. The LTTE most probably felt that the Jaffna peninsula could be isolated by cutting off its sea supply route (Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai) and artillery barrage on strategic Palaly air base.
US, Norway misjudge MR
Thanks to whistle-blowing website, Wiki Leaks, we now know how the Norwegians misjudged President Mahinda Rajapaksa. A leaked confidential US diplomatic cable, authored by the then US Ambassador in Colombo Jeffrey Lunstead in the wake of Nov. 2005 presidential election, revealed how those spearheading the peace initiative had misjudged President Rajapaksa. Following a meeting, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns had with President Rajapaksa at Temple Trees on Jan. 23, 2006, the State Department official told Norwegian peace facilitator Erik Solheim on the same day that President Rajapaksa felt government security forces were ‘too weak to take on the LTTE’. The meeting had taken place at Lunstead’s residence with the participation of the then Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo, Hans Brattskar.
Lunstead titled his missive ‘Under Secretary Burns reviews Sri Lankan peace process with Norwegian facilitator Erik Solheim.’ Burns and Solheim, according to Lunstead had compared notes ‘on the efficacy and vision of various Sri Lankan politicians. But Norwegian Special envoy Jon Hanssen-Baur on April 11, 2006 told a meeting attended by senior representatives of the Sri Lankan Peace Co-Chairs in Oslo that the Tigers had told the Norwegians that they could be militarily defeated by government forces. Burns and Solheim had visited Colombo to explore the possibility of re-launching the peace process after the change of government.
Probably both the GoSL and the LTTE did not reveal their real capabilities.
During the Jan. 23 meet at Lunstead’s residence, Solheim declared that he didn’t expect the LTTE to stop attacks even if they agreed to talks with President Rajapaksa’s government. The LTTE launched claymore mine attacks on Dec. 4, 2006, targeting the Army and Navy. In Jan. 2006, it blew up a Navy Fast Attack Craft (FAC) off Trincomalee, killing the entire crew.
Lunstead wrote: “Asked by Burns for his overall sense of the situation, Solheim said: “It is clear we are at a crossroads. We must make a major step forward or it will go down the drain.” The status quo was no longer tenable. Solheim continued that his impression was that the SL government needed to develop a strategy for war or a strategy for peace, but right now it had neither. He hoped to help the government develop a strategy for peace during his visit.
Burns noted that his message to the President and other senior Sri Lankans had been threefold: the US supports Norway and the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM); the government should not react to LTTE provocations and the GoSL should take and keep the moral high ground by being flexible on issues such as the venue for cease-fire talks. As Secretary Rice had noted to Foreign Minister Samaraweera several weeks ago in Washington, the GoSL should not give the LTTE an excuse to go back to war by being stubborn on the venue issue.”
President Rajapaksa’s political leadership during the three-year offensive proved his critics wrong.