The fall of LTTE strongholds at Dharmapuram and Vishvamdu along the Paranthan-Mullaitivu A-35 road set the stage for one of the most important operations undertaken by the 58 Division on the Vanni front.
Having launched operations on the western flank in Sept. 2007, troops under the then Brig. Shavendra Silva liberated the north-western coast by Nov. 15, 2008 with the capture of Pooneryn before turning eastwards. Pooneryn was their primary target. Their next target was Paranthan on the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road. They achieved the second objective within six weeks. Troops regained the Pooneryn-Paranthan A-34 road by Dec. 31, 2008 night, entered the area east of the A-9 and cleared the A-35 road up to Vishvamadu by the third week of Jan. 2009. Their next target was Suwandirampuram, situated 10 km north-west of Puthukudirippu.
Brig. Shavendra Silva was in a hurry to finish off the LTTE on the Vanni East front. The 58 Division advanced relentlessly into LTTE strongholds causing heavy damage to the enemy. The LTTE fought on multiple fronts as it retreated towards the Mullaitivu coast.
The then army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka saturated the Vanni East with ground forces. On Feb. 8, 2009, shortly after an LTTE counter attack caused heavy damage to the 59.3 Brigade deployed south of Puthukudirippu, the army chief raised Task Force VIII (TF III). The then Col. G.V. Ravipriya (currently army headquarters spokesman) was placed in command of the new fighting formation. It was the last outfit set up to carry out the final maneuvers on the ground. Having served the 57 Division commanded by Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias as one of Brigade Commanders until the liberation of Akkarayankulam, the artillery officer was placed in charge of an area south of Puthukudirippu.
The LTTE faced five divisions namely 57 (Jagath Dias-Gajaba Regiment), 59 (Nandana Udawatte) 58 (Shavendra Silva), 53 (Kamal Gunaratne-Gajaba Regiment) and 55 (Prasanna Silva) as well as four smaller formations, TF II (Rohana Bandara––Engineers), TF III (Sathyapriya Liyanage), TF IV (Nishantha Wanniarachchi) and TF VIII (G.V. Ravipriya––Artillery).
However, subsequent to the heavy defeat suffered by the 59.3 Brigade south of Puthukudirippu in the first week of Feb. 2009, an angry Lt. Gen. Fonseka sent Brig. Chagi Gallage to take over the Division. Brig. Nandana Udawatte was brought to Anuradhapura as the Overall Operations Commander. Regardless of the Feb. 2009 debacle, the 59 Division, including disgraced 59.3 Brigade under Brig. Udawatte’s command fought under extremely difficult conditions to achieve significant battlefield victories on the eastern flank. Although the 59 Division didn’t attract the media attention, it caused immense losses to the enemy in seemingly impregnable Andankulam and Nagacholai forest reserves. Although the 59 Division was slow in achieving its primary objective Mullaitivu, the formation could be proud of its role in the defeat of LTTE terrorism.
Brig. Gallage was a key strategist in the army chief’s team. In fact, Gallage was Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s first choice as TFI/58 Division commander, though he had to take leave due to a surgical operation immediately after the liberation of Arippu and Silavathurai in Aug. 2007. Gallage, who had played a leading role in the liberation of the Eastern Province (Aug. 2006 to June 2007) was back in command of a fighting Division at a crucial stage of the offensive.
Land of Black Tigers
Suwandirampuram was a major LTTE stronghold defended by some of its best fighting units. But, they couldn’t halt the 58 Division advancing on the village. As troops pushed towards the village defenders retreated burying their weapons all over the area even without identification tags. Suwandirampuram was considered the ‘land of black Tigers’ where a major training facility was situated within a high security zone. It was a fully fledged training base used to transform ordinary LTTE cadres into mindless assassins tasked with taking military and political targets. Those who targeted Lt. Gen. Fonseka (April 25, 2006) and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (Dec 1, 2006) had been trained at the Black Tiger training facility. A little distance away from the training base, troops found a short airfield used by LTTE to launch fixed wing aircraft to bomb Colombo. It was the second airfield captured by the 58 Division.
The LTTE moved hundreds of MAHAVEER families to Suwandirampuram from areas north of Mannar as well as Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts in the face of relentless army operations west of the A-9. Although MAHAVEER families as well as ordinary people could have easily surrendered to the army and sought refuge in the government held-area, the LTTE forced the vast majority of people to retreat across the A-9.
The 58.1 Brigade tasked to liberate Suwandirampuram found another major LTTE training facility situated north of the village where troops later recovered a large haul of buried armaments. Having cleared the training base, the 58.1 Brigade comprising Sinha Regiment (7SR) and Gemunu Watch (GW and 12 GW) moved in to Suwandirampuram, where they came across those starving under LTTE administration. During the battle for the ‘Land of Black Tigers’ the LTTE lost over 200 cadres, whereas the 58.1 Brigade lost 14 personnel.
Army snipers facilitate ground advance
The 58.2 Brigade pushing towards the A-35 road encountered an LTTE defence line built along the banks of Teravil aru extending from Udayarkattukulam to Chundikulam lagoon. Troops faced strong resistance with the LTTE deploying experienced cadres to stall the advancing army. The effective deployment of army snipers facilitated the ground assault on the LTTE defence line. Snipers played a critically important role in taking targets along the LTTE defence line, thereby facilitating the overall strategy during the final phase of the conflict. While the battle was raging for the A-35 road, the 58 Division and TF IV linked up hence further increasing pressure on the LTTE.
Bloodbath at IDP centre
On Feb. 9, 2009, an LTTE woman suicide cadre, probably one trained at Suwandirampuram Black Tiger training facility entered an IDP centre manned by the 58 Division in the Thevipuram area to carry out an attack. She targeted civilians. It was a dastardly attempt by Prabhakaran to discourage the people from seeking refuge in the liberated area.
The blast claimed the lives 12 Tamil civilians, including children. Eighteen army personnel, including an officer, too, perished in the suicide blast at the IDP center.
Former General Officer Commanding (GOC) and Sri Lanka Deputy Permanent Representative in New York Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva told The Island that the eelam war IV lasted nearly three years because of the civilian factor. Had civilians managed to reach the government held area, ground forces could have finished off the enemy much earlier. Ambassador Silva said that there couldn’t have been a better example than the suicide attack on the IDP center to underscore the LTTE brutality. The woman tasked to carry out that particular attack could have unknowingly killed her parents or friends, Ambassador Silva said.
The Maj. Gen. pointed out that the 58.3 Brigade had deployed two kilometres southeast of Muruthapiti near Thevipyram was responsible for facilitating IDP movements. “Don’t forget the woman suicide cadre was disguised as a refuge. Maybe she was forced to carry out the attack at gun point. Maybe Prabhakaran threatened her loved ones with death unless she attacked her own community fleeing the murderous LTTE,” Ambassador Silva said.
LTTE strikes back
In a desperate attempt to stall the 58 Division, the LTTE launched a lightning assault on army positions on a small island situated between Chalai and Vanni mainland. The raiding party comprising about 400 attackers took control of the island as the army retreated. Some feared the LTTE could bring in additional forces to exploit the situation on the ground. Having deployed Israeli Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to obtain real time intelligence, the army mounted a massive artillery barrage on the island where the majority of attackers perished. It was one of the most successful artillery assaults directed at a particular LTTE target causing maximum damage. Soon after the artillery attack Special Forces and Commandos moved in to clear the island. As many as 400 LTTE cadres were believed to have been killed in army counter attack. Although the LTTE carried out several daring counter offensives, it couldn’t sustain action due to the army responding to the enemy threat decisively and swiftly. The LTTE couldn’t exploit battlefield success south of Puthukudirippu in the first week of Feb, 2009 and the latest on an island between Chalai and Vanni mainland, though it retained sufficient combat forces even at that time. When the LTTE made a stunning breakthrough south of Puthukudirippu, Special Forces moved in swiftly to thwart the enemy. Had the Special Forces failed, it could have caused an irreparable setback leading to a catastrophic situation.
The army had the capacity to meet the LTTE threat head on due to overwhelming superiority in firepower as well as Special Forces and Commandos remaining ready to intervene in support of the infantry at short notice. The Special Forces and Commandos played a key role in Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s grand strategy to overwhelm the LTTE in the Vanni region, where the LTTE maintained strong forces capable of fighting on multiple fronts for almost two years (Sep 2007 to May 2009).