In part 69 and 70 in ‘war on terror revisited’ series, our reference to the territorial gains made by Task Force II (TF II) on the Western front during the Sept 2007-July 2008 period is erroneous. The credit should go to Task Force I (TF I) commanded by the then Brig. Shavendra Silva. TF I was the second fighting formation established during Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA). The first was 57 Division.
The SLA chief launched TF II in late June, 2008 to facilitate operations undertaken by 57 Division on the Central front and TF I on the Western front. The TF II commanded by Brig. Rohana Bandara commenced offensive operations from an area south of Palamoddai. Brig. Bandara’s troops were the first to manoeuvre along the west-east axis across the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. The LTTE, struggling to resist the 57 Division, TF I and 59 Division on the eastern flank aka the Welioya front was forced to divert men and material to face TF II. The SLA created the 61 Division to hold approximately 600 sq. km. area liberated by 57 Division since launch of operations on March 5, 2007 (Army springs another surprise, opens new front west of A9; Task Force II advances on new targets, Tigers retreat––The Island June 25, 2008).
In the wake of TF II launching operations, 57 Division and TF I linked up southwest of Periyamadhu on the afternoon of June 30, 2008.
The SLA would never have been able to undertake offensive actions on four fronts (three west of the A9 and one east of the road), simultaneously and deploy another Division on a holding role, if President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had deprived the SLA of the required strength. The SLA increased its strength from 116,000 at the onset of the eelam war IV to 220,000. In spite heavy losses, the SLA was able to quickly recover thus giving ground commanders the opportunity to sustain large scale operations. Unlike on previous offensives, the SLA never experienced a shortage of men.
President speaks out
Having bagged the Eastern Provincial Council at the May 10, 2008 election, President Mahinda Rajapaksa dissolved the North Central and the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils. With the elections set for August 2008, President intensified offensives on the political front. Addressing a public rally at the opening of a fishery harbour built with Chinese aid at Beruwela on June 27, 2008, President Rajapaksa declared that the LTTE would be finished off soon. The statement was made close on the heels of a section of the media alleging that the government was giving into Indian pressure to stop the offensive. The President didn’t mince his words as he vowed to sustain the offensive (LTTE will be ‘finished off’ says President––The Island June 29, 2008).
Threat to parliament
As the SLA made headway on different battlefronts, the government took extraordinary measures to thwart possible LTTE attempts to cause mayhem in Colombo. Fearing that the LTTE would use someone to smuggle in an explosive device into Parliament to assassinate a group of MPs, the government prohibited members from bringing in electronic devices. Acting on the instructions of security services, the then Speaker, W. J. M. Lokubandara directed members not to bring in laptops and similar equipment. Lokubandara directed that the ban on laptops remain until the situation improved. The government believed that the LTTE could make an attempt to derail the ongoing offensive by causing political instability. (House bans laptops to prevent LTTE infiltration––The Island June 30).
Fall of main Sea Tiger base
The fall of the Vidattaltivu Sea Tiger base on July 16, 2008, sent shock waves through the LTTE. As the LTTE abandoned Vidattaltivu and retreated northwards, the Sea Tigers faced a major dilemma. Although the LTTE propaganda organs still vowed to halt the SLA offensive, Prabhakaran realised the possibility of the Sea Tigers losing all bases northwards of Vidattaltivu. The loss of the Vidattaltivu–Pooneryn stretch could have effectively deprived the LTTE of its main supply lines between the Vanni mainland and Tamil Nadu. Having liberated Vidattaltivu, the TF I now threatened to cut off the LTTE sea line of communications. Tamil Nadu had remained the LTTE’s main supply base.
Indians among Tigers
The SLN deployed a sizeable force in the Gulf of Mannar in a bid to hinder the LTTE sea supply line. The LTTE cunningly used the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet to its advantage. The SLN deployed every available asset to prevent the Sea Tigers crossing the Indo-Lanka maritime. The SLN stepped up its deployment close on the heels of the arrest of 290 Tamil Nadu trawlers on July 2, 2008.
The SLN intercepted a boat carrying seven persons on July 16, 2008 in the Gulf of Mannar. The boat was approaching the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary when the SLN forced it to stop. Among the seven persons onboard was Selvam Sudesh Kannan. The Indian carried a passport bearing ETN/059/001/355/2001. The Indian told the SLN that he had arrived in LTTE held territory on Jan. 10, 2003 during the Ceasefire Agreement. The SLN promptly pointed out that the suspect hadn’t entered the country through the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), though he was in possession of a valid passport. The man told the SLN officers how he, along with his colleagues, had been detained by the LTTE. Many an eyebrow was raised when he claimed that the LTTE used them as labourers.
The SLN brought Kannan to Colombo and handed him over to the Indian High Commission. Kannan failed to explain why his family had failed to raise his disappearance with the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner’s mission in Chennai or the Indian High Commission for so long. What had he been doing in the Vanni for so long? How did he manage to escape from those holding him? Why didn’t he didn’t get in touch with the UN officers in the Vanni or other international agencies, including the ICRC based in the LTTE-held region? (Mysterious presence of Indian in Tiger territory––The Island July 18, 2008).
After losing Vidattaltivu, the LTTE took up positions in and around Illuppaikkadavai, Mundampiddi and Vellalakulam in a bid to prevent TF I from advancing towards Nachchikudah. The Army Chief personally supervised the ground situation on a daily basis. Unlike his predecessors, the Sinha Regiment veteran didn’t place the war effort under the command of an Overall Operations Commander (OOC). He made it a point to regularly visit the Northern areas to confer with his senior commanders to ensure that the offensive was on track. Those who had failed to accomplish tasks given to them incurred the wrath of the hot tempered, tough talking infantry officer.
By the third week of July 2008, the 57 Division was operating about four kilometres south of Thunnukai, situated along the Vellankulam-Mankulam road. The 57 Division threatened to cut off the vital road link. A rapid SLA build-up compelled the LTTE to move additional forces to thwart the TF I and 57 Division crossing the road even at the expense of formations fighting on other fronts (Rapid progress on war front; Army eyes Thunnukai on Mankulam-Vellankulam road––The Island July 21, 2008).
The SLN and the SLAF launched an unprecedented raid targeting Nachchikudah in the third week of July 2008. Having bagged Vidattaltivu and Illuppaikkadavai, TF I now targeted Nachchikudah, situated about 17 kms north of Illuppaikkadavai. The elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS) raided Nachchikudah as jets launched from the Katunayake airbase zeroed in on LTTE assets there.
Tigers lose first 120 mm on the Vanni front
The 57 Division recovered one 120 mm mortar following a fierce confrontation about three kilometres south-east of Mallavi on July 24, 2008. It was the first heavy mortar recovered on the Vanni front since the launch of offensive action on March 5, 2007. Fighting elements of the 57 Division and elite Special Forces attacked the gun position after cutting off the gun crew’s escape route. Troops found 120 mm mortar along with 33 LTTE bodies, five T-56 assault rifles, two 81 mm mortars and about 100 mortar rounds. The SLA hit the gun position as the LTTE was making an effort to shift the weapons. Among the dead were two senior LTTE cadres, including one holding the rank of ‘Lieutenant Colonel’ of the Charles Anthony ‘Brigade.’ The losses suffered by the elite Charles Anthony ‘Brigade’ had a demoralising impact on the LTTE. Close on the heels of confrontation south-east of Mallavi, the SLN deployed Fast Attack Craft and SBS craft to target Chilawatte, two miles south of Mullaitivu (SLN raids Mullaitivu, SLA strikes on Vanni front––The Island July 25, 2008).
The LTTE’s morale sagged in view of the growing SLA build-up on the Western and Central fronts. The LTTE faced a severe shortage of manpower, whereas the SLA sustained the offensive, in spite of taking heavy losses. The LTTE withered under heavy SLA and SLAF pressure. The SLAF caused heavy losses among enemy fighting formations, which had been deprived of both reinforcements as well as required ammunition.