Having restored the Mannar-Pooneryn overland road (A-32) by Nov 15, 2008, the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka opened a new front targeting Mankulam, 30 km north of Vavuniya on the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road. Newly raised Task Force III (TF III) liberated that township on Nov. 17, 2008 following a series of confrontations with LTTE units.
The LTTE captured Mankulam on Nov. 5, 1999 during a major offensive, which brought the army to its knees in the Vanni during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency (Mankulam regained, progress on the Jaffna front –The Island Nov, 18, 2008). The army suffered the debilitating setback following the collapse of its own offensives on the Vanni theatre.
TF III was commanded by Brig. Sathyapriya Liyanage launched operations from Vannivilankulam, west of A-9. It was the second fighting formation to manoeuvre along with west-east axis across A-9. The first was Task Force II (TF II) commanded by Brig. Rohana Bandara. Although TF II launched operations in June 2008, it was TF III which first overran an LTTE base on A-9. TF I was yet to reach A-9. Having completed operations on the western flank with the liberation of Pooneryn, TF I was positioned about ten kilometres west of Paranthan, while the 57 Division continued to consolidate its position at Kokavil, 12 km south of Kilinochchi on A-9 road. The LTTE overran Kokavil detachment in July 1990 during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s presidency. The base fell due to the army’s failure to move reinforcements to save two platoons commanded by Lt. Saliya Upul Aladeniya.
‘Colonel’ Swarnam’s truck captured
TF III captured an armour plated truck during the battle for Mankulam. Swarnam and his elite bodyguards fled leaving the vehicle behind when TF III troops fired at it. The liberation of Mankulam threatened LTTE fortifications along with the Mankulam-Mullaitivu road.
Although several offensive formations threatened the A-9 road in Nov. 2008, the LTTE deployed bulk of its forces to defend the Kilinochchi town and therefore the 57 Division deployed on the central front faced heavy resistance. The LTTE went to the extent of declaring that the liberation of Kilinochchi would be only a daydream of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The LTTE felt that a devastating attack on the 57 Division could change the ground situation in the Vanni. But the army stepped up pressure with TF III and 53 and 55 Divisions launching operations in Nov. 2008.
But the LTTE faced the biggest threat from Brig. Shavendra Silva’s TF I, which was now in a position to direct operations at LTTE fortifications at Elephant Pass and northwards of the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, Paranthan as well as Kilinochchi.
Progress on eastern flank
On the eastern flank or the Weli Oya front, the 59 Division was in a commanding position by late Nov. 2008. The 59 Division consolidated its positions at Kumalamunai, a fishing village about 13 km south of Mullaitivu. Since the launch of operations east of A-9, in January 2008, the 59 Division fought under extremely difficult conditions to reach Kumalamunai, having secured Munagam base (May 30, 2008), Michael base (July 4, 2008), Sugandan base (July 27, 2008), Jeevan base (Aug. 16, 2008), west of Nayaru lagoon (Aug. 21, 2008), Gajabapura (Oct 23, 2008) and Otiyamalai (Nov 29, 2008).
By end of Nov. 2008, the LTTE was struggling on all fronts. But it still remained confident of Western powers and India coming to its rescue. At the behest of Prabhakaran, a section of the international community brought pressure to bear on President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to halt the offensive. The Rajapaksa brothers ignored their pleas. They insisted that nothing short of an unconditional surrender could save the LTTE fighting forces. The government committed all available forces for the final phase of the offensive. By the third week of Nov. 2008 all fighting formations both east (59 Division) and west (57 Division, TF I, TF II and TF III) as well as Jaffna front (53 and 55 Divisions) were engaged in offensive actions. The government realized the urgent need to finish off the LTTE in view of growing international pressure to call of the offensive. The LTTE pushed hard for a third party intervention in an effort to secure a truce before the 57 Division captured on the town. But the successful conclusion of operations on the western flank paved the way for the opening of a front, which hastened the collapse of the LTTE power on the Vanni east.
Tigers overwhelmed at northern FDL
The 53 and 55 Divisions launched a concentrated attack on the enemy’s first line of defence on Nov. 14, 2008 as the TF I was moving towards Pooneryn. The LTTE abandoned an 800-meter deep and eight-kilometre wide complex of fortifications in the early hours of Nov. 20, 2008 following a weeklong assault. An earth bund built across a 12-kilometre stretch of land extending from Kilaly to Nagarkovil via Muhamalai failed to thwart the combined assault. It was the fourth attempt made by Lt. Gen. Fonseka to overcome the LTTE on the Jaffna front. Three previous abortive attempts claimed the lives of about 500 officers and men and caused injuries to several hundred. Of the three failed attempts, the first was the worst with the Air Mobile Brigade troops suffering a major setback (Gateway to Elephant Pass opened-The Island Nov. 21, 2008).
Fall of Kokavil on Nov. 5, 2008 and Mankulam on Nov. 17, 2008 as well as TF I taking up position 10 km west of Paranthan brought Kilinochchi under immense pressure. The LTTE no longer had reserves to meet troops advancing on multiple fronts. Although the then army top brass never publicly appreciated the role played by the Navy, a series of successful operations on the high seas (Sept. 2006-Oct. 2007) deprived the enemy of the much-needed ammunition. The LTTE was running out of ammunition with the collapse of its international sea supply route (Mankulam the key for strategic push into Tiger heartland-The Island Nov. 23, 2008). In spite of having some improvised runways east of A-9, the LTTE never succeeded in airlifting at least one load of ammunition. The SLAF mounted several attacks on runways both east and west of A-9 to prevent Air Tigers from launching small fixed wing aircraft against military and economic targets. The SLAF also wanted to prevent the LTTE from bringing ammunition by air. The then SLAF Chief Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke remained confident that his forces could thwart LTTE attempt to replenish their depleted arsenal. Air Marshal Goonetilleke was responding to an article headlined, Fight and Fight-The LTTE’s air cargo ambitions in Jane’s Nov. 13, 2008 issue(Time running out for LTTE runways—The Island Nov 24, 2008).
TF III captured Olumadu, situated about five kilometres north-east of Mankulam along 40-kilometre Mankulam-Mullaitivu A-34 road as an LTTE counter attack caused heavy losses among TF I and 57 Division troops west of A-9 road. Army headquarters placed the number of dead and missing at 30 and 80, respectively, though actual figures were much higher. But their offensives couldn’t be derailed (Bloody battles for Kilinochchi-Paranthan stretch-The Island Nov. 25, 2008). The army lost both Olumadu and Karapaddamurippu on Nov. 5, 1999 (Army bags Olumadu-The Island Nov. 26, 2008).
President’s call for surrender
In the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Pooneryn President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged the LTTE to surrender to bring fighting to an end. The LTTE turned down the offer. None of those wanting an international inquiry into accountability issues in Sri Lanka urged the LTTE to accept the President’s offer. Instead they stepped up pressure on President Rajapaksa to call off the offensive. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) remained strongly supportive of the LTTE’s efforts to force a stalemate on the battlefront. Had Prabhakaran responded positively to the President’s proposal, the government would have been forced to negotiate for an organized surrender. As the LTTE ignored the President’s offer, the army went ahead with its offensive action.
Another offensive formation launched
Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka launched Task Force IV (TF IV) on Dec 10, 2008. Colonel Nishantha Wanniarachchi commanded TF IV, which was the second fighting formation to launch operations east of the A-9. The 59 Division was the first to begin offensive action on the eastern flank in January 2008. TF IV brought Nedunkerny, south of Olumadu, on Dec 19, 2008.
Paranthan, Kilinochchi targeted
The successful conclusion of operations on the western flank deprived the LTTE of its longstanding mortar and artillery launching pads at Pooneryn and Kalmunai point. The operation brought great relief to civilians living in the Jaffna peninsula. Having ignored President Rajapaksa’s offer, the LTTE deployed all its available forces to meet the rapidly growing threat on Paranthan and Kilinochchi. In spite of inclement weather, TF I stepped up operations with Lt. Gen. Fonseka directing Brig. Silva to seize Pooneryn-Paranthan road (B -69). It was one of the toughest tasks given to TF I, which controlled a sizeable section of the Pooneryn-Paranthan road even before it received a directive to liberate Paranthan. TF I advanced towards Sinna Paranthan situated 19 km east of Pooneryn. The LTTE manned strong fortifications, with an earth bund extending from Jaffna lagoon to Kilinochchi being the main obstacle.
TF I launched a night operation to breach the earth bund. The task was given to 582 Brigade. The operation involved Gemunu Watch (17 GW), Gajaba Regiment (12 GR) as well as Special Forces and Commandos. Although they managed to secure a foothold at night, the LTTE mounted a major counter attack on the following day. Gemunu and Gajaba troops were compelled to move in. They dug up positions amidst heavy LTTE attacks.
TF I sustained offensive operations under extremely bad weather. The 583 Brigade deployed north of B-69 road fought a series of battles leading to the infantry breaching the earth bund from two points west of Kollan Aru with the support of armour and artillery. Amidst fierce fighting, Light Infantry troops (11 SLLI) liberated Sinna Paranthan on Dec. 17. The day after Christmas, troops seized Navanalankulam. The LTTE struggled in the face of TF I build-up, which seriously threatened not only Paranthan but LTTE fortifications north and south of the town.