Sri Lanka’s most successful fighting formation Task Force I (TFI) was elevated to the status of a permanent Division in the immediate aftermath of the then Brig. Shavendra Silva’s troops liberating LTTE stronghold Paranthan at midnight Dec. 31, 2008, and the northern part of Kilinochchi the following day. Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka announced the transformation of TFI to 58 at a meeting called at the Vanni Security Forces headquarters, in Vavuniya, close on the heels of magnificent battlefield victories. The 58 was the last fighting Division formed by Lt. Gen. Fonseka, the Sinha Regiment veteran, who oversaw the doubling of the army’s strength during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term (2005- 2010).
The decision to double the strength of the army (from 100,000 to over 200,000) was taken by President Rajapaksa with the concurrence of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The decision was in line with Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s plea for additional troops. The navy and the air force, too, were given the green light to rapidly expand.
Change of command
Having liberated Silavathurai and Arippu, south of Mannar on Sept 1, 2007, Lt. Gen. Fonseka directed TFI to liberate Mannar ‘Rice Bowl.’ Lt. Gen. Fonseka picked the then Brig. Chargi Gallage as TFI commander.
Brig. Gallage assigned the daunting task of liberating Parappakadaththan to the 58.1 Brigade, Adampan to the 58.2 Brigade and Andankulam to the 58.3 Brigade. TFI’s first task was to capture sluice gates of the Giant Tank at the eastern border of the Rice Bowl on Sept. 22, 2007. TFI was battling it out on the eastern front when Brig. Gallage had to undergo urgent surgery. The army chief named Brig. Silva as Gallage’s successor. Under Silva’s command, TFI liberated Adampan on May 9, 2008, Rice Bowl on June 29, 2008 before linking up with the 57 Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias on the afternoon June 30, 2008.
TFI’s primary task was to clear the coastal road from Mannar to Pooneryn-Sangupiddy. The 57 Division was given the uphill task of liberating Kilinochchi.
TFI captured Vellankulam on Aug 12, 2008, and rapidly advanced towards its primary target and brought Pooneryn under its control on Nov. 15, 2008. Having bagged Pooneryn, TFI turn eastwards. TFI advanced eastwards straddling Pooneryn-Paranthan B-69 road to enter Paranthan on the night of Dec 31, 2008. Having wrested control of Paranthan, Brig. Silva’s troops fought their way into the northern part of Kilinochchi town, where they secured the LTTE headquarters complex, the most modern building in the entire Vanni built during the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement. The Army headquarters directed Brig. Silva to halt further southwards advance. He was asked to turn northwards of Kilinochchi to take Elephant Pass.
On Jan.9, 2009, TFI troops linked up with the 53 and 55 Divisions north of Elephant Pass. TFI liberated Elephant Pass, where the army had suffered a humiliating battlefield defeat in the third week of April 2000. Elephant Pass was headquarters to the fully fledged 54 Division, which held Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi section of the A-9 road and overland supply route from Elephant Pass to Vettilaikerni on the east coast. The linking up of TFI and 53 and 55 Division troops effectively restricted what was left of the LTTE’s conventional fighting power to the east of the A-9.
It was the Gemunu Watch (9GW) which crossed the Elephant Pass lagoon to seize the narrow causeway which linked the Vanni mainland with the Jaffna peninsula. The national flag was hoisted along with divisional and regimental flags in the presence of the then Vanni Security Forces Commander, Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya and Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, the then Maj. Gen. Mendaka Samarasinghe.
Troops turn heat on Tigers
The LTTE regrouped quickly as the 58 Division opened a new front. The 58 Division advanced eastwards of Paranthan on the Paranthan-Mullaitivu road (A-35) targeting Murasumoddai.
In the immediate aftermath of the Kilinochchi debacle, the LTTE made an attempt to target Air Force Chief Air Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke in Colombo. But, the plan went awry. A male suicide cadre exploded himself as he was pursued by people when his presence aroused suspicions. The assassin was waiting near SLAF headquarters at Sir Chittamplam Gardinar Mawatha at the time people surrounded him.
Buoyant by major battlefield achievements, the 58 Division within a week overran Murasumoddai, an LTTE stronghold situated 5.5 km away from Paranthan along the A-35 road. The operation was the first since the 54 Division during the third phase of operation Sath Jaya in Sept. 1996 ventured into the area. Although the LTTE resisted fiercely, it couldn’t stop the 58 Division troops. In a dawn operation, Sinha Regiment (7SR) commanded by Lt. Col. Kithsiri Liyanage stormed Musasumoddai causing heavy damage to the LTTE. Defenders withdrew leaving bodies of their colleagues. The 5th Armoured Regiment facilitated the ground assault by deploying T-55 main battle tanks as well as T-63 tanks.
Having liberated Murasumoddai, the 58 Division eyed Dharmapuram aka Tharmapuram also on the A-35 road. The township, situated 15 km east of A-9 was considered one of the most important LTTE centres. Many INGOs had operated in the area, though they vacated the region in Sept. 2008. After a series of bloody confrontations, the 58 Division liberated Dharmapuram on Jan.15, 2009. The battle for Dharmapuram was spearheaded by the Gajaba Regiment (10GR) and the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (11 SLLI). During the battle army engineers thwarted an LTTE attempt to blow up a bridge near Pulathi aru on the A-35 road. The fall of Dharmapuram paved the way for the 58 Division to push towards Vishvamadu. Before the fall of Paranthan, the LTTE exploited the civilian population living in Dharmapuram to deceive the international community.
The LTTE propaganda operation received the backing of some INGOs, NGOs and certain Colombo-based diplomats.
On Jan. 17, 2009, the 57 Division captured Ramanathapuram situated east of the A-9 road. The LTTE suffered heavy losses in its attempts to thwart the 57 Division. Once the 57 Division consolidated Ramanathapuram, it launched operations targeting Vishvamadu.
The 58 Division conducted operations north of Paranthan-Mullaitivu road whereas the 57 Division engaged targets south of the road. The road divided the two Divisions. Both advanced in the general direction of Mullaitvu.
Gotabhaya rules out truce
The fall of Murasumoddai, Dharmapuram and Ramanahapuram in quick succession prompted international calls for an immediate truce. A section of the international community pushed hard for a ceasefire on the Vanni front. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and some foreign-funded NGOs urged President Rajapaksa to halt the offensive immediately. Close on the heels of the liberation of Dharmapuram, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa declared that the offensive wouldn’t be stopped under any circumstances. The Gajaba Regiment veteran, who had fought the LTTE at the onset of major operations in the Eelam conflict insisted that the government wouldn’t offer a general amnesty to hardcore LTTE terrorists.
Prabhakaran and his chief lieutenants would be tried for crimes they committed here and overseas, an obvious reference to the LTTE assassination of one-time Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur on 21 May 1991. Even if the top LTTE leadership surrendered to the army, the government would go ahead with legal proceedings, Rajapaksa said. The government wouldn’t consider extradition of Prabhakaran and his chief lieutenants to India. The Defence Secretary was responding to India’s request for the extradition of Prabhakaran over the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. India also wanted Kumaran Pathmanathan a.k.a ‘KP’ (Gota rules out amnesty to LTTE leadership––The Island Jan. 16, 2009).
Battle for Vishvamadu
The 58 and 57 Divisions advanced towards the next major LTTE target Vishvamadu. Prabhakaran and some prominent Tigers had houses there. The LTTE had extremely strong defences with both sides of the road which heavily mined. The LTTE also destroyed a bridge over Nethali Aru close to Vishvamadu in a bid to delay the advancing troops.
The 58 Division fought a series of battles as it advanced towards LTTE earth bund east of Puliyanpokkunai. The 58 Division troops (11 SLLI and 6 GW) made the largest single recovery of armaments in a day on the Vanni front in the last week of Jan. 2009. The recovered items included US-built guns capable of firing chemicals, thermo baric weapons and nine mortar launchers of different caliber (US-made guns capable of firing chemicals found––The Island Feb 2, 2009)
The LTTE blasted the Kalmadu tank bund but failed to prevent troops from capturing Vishvamadu. Both fighting Divisions had to face raging waters of the Kalmadu tank. The LTTE blasted the tank bund after 11 SLLI troops crossed Nethali Aru in spite of the LTTE blowing up the bridge. The LTTE move isolated the 11 SLLI troops, who had to fight on their own. Prabhakaran threw all available units at the 582 Brigade as he made a determined bid to dislodge the army from Vishvamadu.
For about eight hours 11 SLLI faced the enemy alone until reinforcements moved in around 4 p.m. About two hours later the LTTE deployed an armoured fighting vehicle in support of the infantry. Still the 58 Division held on. Units deployed for counter penetration action played a critical role in thwarting the LTTE counter offensive. Having defeated the LTTE attempt to regain Vishvamadu, 11 SLLI engaged in clearing operations came across a luxury house complex frequented by Prabhakaran. The complex included a large air conditioned underground bunker, a vehicle yard, firing range and a massive court yard where Prabhakaran had met visitors.
Role of Security Forces HQ Vanni
Unlike his predecessors, Lt. Gen. Fonseka refrained from appointing an Overall Operations Commander (OOC) to conduct large scale military operations on the northern front. Instead Security Forces HQ Vanni supervised the offensive action both east and west of the A-9, while Lt. Gen. Fonseka personally conducted the overall campaign.
The then Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya functioned as the Vanni Security Forces Commander throughout the campaign. Having returned from the National Defence College (NDC), Jayasuriya prepared to take over one of the Divisions deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, though the army chief changed his mind at the last moment. Instead, Maj. Gen. Jayasuriya was appointed Vanni Security Forces Commander on Aug 7, 2007. The appointment was made about a week after troops secured Arippu and Silavathurai. TFI was yet to launch its victorious offensive on the western flank in support of the 57 Division deployed on the central front.
Jayasuriya remained Vanni Security Forces Commander in Vanni until he succeeded Gen. Fonseka at the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009. The then Colonel Jayasuriya commanded 56.3 Brigade during disastrous Jayasikuru offensive and was seriously wounded in a mine blast at Olumadu, east of the A-9 on Mar. 1998. Interestingly, the 56 Division based in Vavuniya region wasn’t even deployed for offensive action during the eelam war IV.