Having fought a series of bloody battles since Jan, 2008, the 59 Division deployed on the eastern flank aka the Weli Oya front was ready to enter Mullaitivu town on the night of Jan. 24, 2009. Liberating Mullaitivu was the 59 Division’s primary task. The then Brig. Nandana Udawatte’s fighting formation had taken one year to fight its way across Anandakulam and Nagacholai forest reserves, which stood as natural defences for the LTTE stronghold, Mullaitivu.
The LTTE captured Mullaitivu on July 18, 1996 wiping out two infantry battalions (Sinha Regiment and Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment) and support units attached to the 25 Brigade headquartered there. The isolated Brigade was deployed on a narrow stretch of a land between the Nanthikadal lagoon and the sea. The base occupied a 2,900m long and 1,500 m wide area with a perimeter of about 8,500 m bordered by the sea on one side. A joint rescue operation involving three forces spearheaded by the Special Forces ended disastrously with reinforcements, too, taking heavy losses.
Over the years, the LTTE turned the town into its strongest base, from where they coordinated a large scale smuggling operation to bring in supplies from abroad.
Gemunu Watch in ‘silent’ operation
Two small groups of the 7th Gemunu Watch (7GW) battalion under cover of darkness of Saturday night silently crossed the Nanthikadal lagoon to enter the Mullaitivu town. The raiders consisted of two eight man teams, which took up positions in the town. They were followed by some elements of 12 and 15 battalions of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI). The 59.3 Brigade commanded by the then Lieut. Col. Jayantha Gunaratne comprised 7 GW, 12 SLLI and 15 SLLI.
The 7GW was commanded by Lieut. Col. Chaminda Lamahewa, whereas 12 SLLI and 15 SLLI fought under the command of Maj. Wasantha Perera and Maj. Sujeewa Hettiarachchi, respectively.
The crossing of Nanthikadal lagoon took place while troops battled strong LTTE forces south of town. The LTTE launched fierce attacks taking cover of a massive earth bund across Alampil-Mullaitivu road.
The 59 Division brought Mullaitivu town under its control on the morning of Jan. 25, 2009. The liberation of the coastal town marked an important milestone in the battle against the LTTE.
The 59 Division waged a series of fierce battles with elite LTTE units before scoring its first major victory on May 30, 2008 when the LTTE abandoned its Munagam base. The 59 Division captured bases codenamed Michael (July 4), Sugandan (July 27) and Jeevan (August 16) before reaching the area west of the Nayaru lagoon. On Oct. 23, the 59 Division secured Gajabapura and on Nov. 11 moved into Kumulamunai village. The LTTE lost Otiyamalai on Nov. 29 before being evicted from Mulliyawalai on Dec. 26, 2008.
Fighting alone on the eastern front
The 59 Division paid a heavy price to liberate Mullaituvu. While the 57 Division and Task Force I (TFI) fought on the central and western flanks, respectively, west of the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road, the 59 Division fought alone on the eastern front. The 57 Division launched operations in March 2007, while TFI commenced its northwards advance from Mannar in Sept 2007. The then army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka launched TFII and TF III from south of Palamoodai and Vannivilankulam also west of the A-9 road. TF II commenced operations in June 2008 whereas TF III began its march in Nov 2008. Both formations manoeuvred along the west-east axis across the A-9 road. But, the army opened a second front east of the A-9 road in Dec. 2008 with the launch of TF IV under the command of Col. Nishantha Wanniarachchi. Having launched operations in the general area Nedunkerni, TF IV brought Nedunkerni under its control on Dec 19, 2008, Oddusuddan on Jan. 4, 2009 and Keridattadu on Jan. 12, 2009.
The 59 Division evicted the LTTE from villagers, including Alampil south of Mullaitivu by the end of Jan. 2009. Alampil situated 12 km south of Mullaitivu was one of the major Sea Tiger strongholds. The fall of Alampil demoralised the LTTE with some units rapidly retreating northwards to take up position in Mullaitivu.
By the first week of Jan. 2009 TF III and TF IV completely dominated the Mankulam-Oddusuddan A-34 road.
Tigers trapped in 360 sq. km area
At the time, the 59 Division liberated Mullaitivu, eight fighting formations conducted operations east of the A-9 road. In fact, the army found it difficult to conduct large scale ground operations by all formations due to the gradual shrinking of the area held by the LTTE. The LTTE deployed in Mullaitivu was pressed by the 59 Division and the then Brig. Prasanna Silva’s 55 Division advancing southwards along the coastal road. By end of Jan, 2009, the LTTE had been restricted to approximately 360 sq. km area east of the A9, with ground forces pressing defenders on multiple fronts.
SF praises MR, GR
The liberation of Mullaituvu prompted Lt. Gen. Fonseka to declare that 95 per cent of the battle was over. In a televised speech over the national television, the Sinha Regiment veteran paid a glowing tribute to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for their unwavering support. The army chief also commended the support given by the air force, though he ignored the navy’s contribution to the war effort. It was no secret that Lt. Gen. Fonseka and navy Chief the then Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda were not on talking terms. Lt. Gen. Fonseka publicly questioned the navy’s ability as well as capacity to prevent the LTTE from evacuating its leadership. The army chief also ridiculed the navy top brass for allowing Sea Tigers to operate under their noses hence bringing in vast quantities of arms, ammunition and equipment.
Indian Foreign Minister in Colombo
The fall of Mullaitivu fueled large scale protests in Tamil Nadu with its Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi pushing the central government to intervene in Sri Lanka. At the behest of the LTTE facing defeat on the battlefront, Karunanidhi wanted India to take tangible action to save Prabhakaran. The then Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee met President Rajapaksa at Temple Trees to discuss the situation, the Defence Secretary Rajapaksa reiterated government’s commitment to finish off the LTTE (Lanka won’t halt offensive––The Island Jan 28, 2009).
Gajaba troops recover 152 mm artillery piece
While the 59 Division consolidated its position at Mullaitivu, 10 Gajaba battalion attached to Brig. Shavendra Silva’s 58 Division recovered one 152 mm artillery piece buried north-east of Vishvamadu on Jan 28, 2009. 10 GR was under the command of Maj. Janaka Udowita. Having examined the weapon of Chinese origin, the army declared it was in perfect working condition.
ICRC facilitates transfer of sick and wounded
On Jan. 29, 2009, the LTTE allowed the ICRC to transfer 226 sick and wounded people from the LTTE-held area to Vavuniya hospital. The overland movement took place following a tripartite agreement involving the ICRC, the army and the LTTE. The LTTE gave in to international pressure, though it had earlier thwarted an UN/ICRC attempt to move 300 sick and wounded people along with a group of UN employees and their dependents. The detained UN employees included two expatriate workers. Although the LTTE allowed the expats to leave, local UN workers and their dependents had no option but to remain in the war zone (Gajaba troops recover 152 mm artillery piece on M’tivu front––The Island Jan 30, 2009).
A section of the local media continued to undermine the war effort with some openly backing the LTTE propaganda blitz against the government. Army headquarters strongly protested after a Colombo-based news agency photographer, having visited Mullaitivu in the immediate aftermath of the 59 Division liberating the town had released pictures with false captions to the effect that a large group of civilians had perished due to an artillery attack carried out by the army. Many an eye brow was raised as the media visit had been organised by the President’s media team
Last major LTTE counter attack
The LTTE mounted a massive counter attack on the 59 Division in the first week of December causing heavy losses. The LTTE operation got underway as Defence Secretary Rajapaksa rejected a joint appeal by Tokyo Co-Chairs to Sri Lanka’s peace process namely Japan, US, Norway and the EU to halt the ongoing offensive to pave the way for talks. The grouping wanted the government and the LTTE to negotiate for the surrender of Prabhakaran’s arms. An irate Defence Secretary Rajapaksa declared nothing short of an unconditional surrender of arms and cadres could bring an end to the offensive on the eastern front (Lanka rejects move to throw lifeline to LTTE––The Island Feb 5, 2009). The LTTE offensive quickly developed into an all-out attack on the 59 Division with the 59.3 Brigade deployed south of Puthukudirippu suffering a heavy defeat. Brig. N. A. Dharmaratne told Defence seminar, ‘Defeating terrorism: Sri Lanka experience’ in May/June 2011, how the LTTE had wrongfooted the 59.3 Brigade in a lightning strike. The 59.3 Brigade was pushed back about five kms by the attacking force before Special Forces and Commandos moved in to thwart the offensive. The Feb. 2009 offensive was the fiercest of three major counter attacks mounted by the LTTE before the group suffered the single worst battlefield defeat due to an unprecedented joint operation conducted by the 58 Division and the 53 Division on the Vanni east front.
In the immediate aftermath of the liberation of the Eastern Province in July 2007, army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka told this writer that the army had never had an overall plan before the launch of the eelam war IV in August 2006. “We never had a cohesive strategy earlier. Of course, we conducted operations and major security forces campaigns. But unfortunately they were isolated action. There was never an overall action plan on our part. In some instances, we were only reacting to LTTE actions,”
The army chief asserted that a combination of negligence on the part of the top brass, absence of a cohesive battle plan and a ridiculous system that ensured promotions solely on the basis of seniority had had a catastrophic impact on the armed forces. Lack of political will to finish off the LTTE, too, had contributed to the gradual transformation of the LTTE from a terrorist group to formidable conventional fighting force with what he called ‘a sea and air capability.’ The war veteran declared that the LTTE had lost capacity to wage major battles on the Vanni east front (High intensity fighting tapering off––The Island Feb. 1, 2009). But the LTTE regrouped in the first week of Feb. 2009 to carry out a debilitating attack on the 59 Division, though it couldn’t derail the army offensive.