*Over 600 Tigers die in unprecedented three-day encirclement operation in Puthukudirippu east
*April operation deprived Int’l community much needed time to force ceasefire
Brig. Shavendra Silva takes cover behind the Puthukudirippu name board to look at the Puthukudirippu junction situated about 300 meters away. Picture was taken by Capt. Wasantha Jayaweera immediately after the 58 Division evicted the LTTE from the area. From left Saliya Amunugama, Maj. Vijith Hettiarachchi, Col. Sanjaya Wanigasekera (58.2 Brigade Commander) and Brig. Suraj Bansajayah (58.1 Brigade Commander)
The army brought the LTTE to its knees in the first week of April 2009, almost six weeks before Prabhakaran was shot dead on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.
The April battle was undoubtedly one of the most important operations conducted by the army on the Vanni front during the eelam war IV (March 2007–May 2009). The operation involved the rapid deployment of troops to cordon off and annihilate a well-equipped LTTE force commanded by some of its best commanders.
It was the first classical encirclement operation carried out by the Army under difficult circumstances on the Vanni East front, though it had overwhelming firepower as well as unlimited ground forces. The defeat of the LTTE formations at Anandapuram made the outcome of the conflict a foregone conclusion in spite of a section of the international community trying to throw a fresh lifeline to the LTTE.
The then Brig. Shavendra Silva’s battle-hardened 58 Division was given the responsibility of carrying out the operation, which involved Brig. Kamal Gunaratne’s 53 Division, though at that time the Gajaba Regiment veteran was away. Brig. Chagi Gallage was in charge of the 53 Division.
The battle was fought outside the civilian safety zone. The operation was spearheaded by Gajaba Regiment veteran Brig. Shavendra Silva.
The 5 VIR (Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment) of the 53 Division linked up with 11 SLLI (Sri Lanka Light Infantry), 9 GW (Gemunu Watch) and 20 GR (Gajaba Regiment) on April 2, 2009 to drive hundreds of LTTE cadres into an area consisting of one square kilometre in Anandapuram in Puthukudirippu East.
Having bagged the most of major LTTE strongholds, including Vidathalthivu, Pooneryn, Paranthan, southern part of Kilinochchi Town, Elephant Pass, Dharmapuram, Vishvamadhu and Iranapalai, the 58 Division was confident of achieving its objective.
Before targeting the LTTE at Anandapuram, the 58 Division captured Puthukudirippu government hospital and a special medical facility run by the LTTE in the same area to treat senior LTTE cadres wounded in battle. The LTTE fired from both hospitals in a bid to stall the advancing army. The LTTE was in a quandary after losing both Puthukudirippu-Puthumathalan road and Iranapalai-Ampalawanpokkanai road by March 19, 2009. Despite being cut off from the main LTTE body, the enemy resisted fiercely north and north-east of Puthukudirippu to prevent the army from capturing a bungalow belonging to Prabhakaran. Some speculated that Prabhakaran’s wife had given birth to two of their three children, a son and daughter there. Having secured strategically important Puthukudirippu junction, the 58 moved to spearhead the operation at Anandapuram.
First major encirclement operation
The operation was meticulously planned as the ground commanders knew it could be the last big battle before the LTTE’s collapse. The ground commanders were lucky to obtain real time intelligence due to deployment of Israeli manufactured Unmanned Aerial Vehicles over Anandapuram. Although the army couldn’t estimate the number of men and women trapped at Anandapuram, the presence of hundreds of battle hardened cadres was known. In support of the ground forces, the artillery was placed on standby. The 58 Division covered most of the ground, whereas the 53 Division, too, played an important role in the operation. The 58 Division couldn’t have carried out the operation on its own.
On the morning of April 3, 2009, the 58 and 53 Divisions entirely cut off the LTTE group at Anandapuram. Ground commanders deployed three rings of troops backed by armour and artillery to thwart any possible attempt by the cornered Tigers to smash through the cordon.
LTTE counter attack foiled
On the midnight of April 2009, the LTTE made an attempt to breach the army cordon. At some places, elite LTTE units overwhelmed troops deployed on the first and second rings and engaged the third line, where they were annihilated. Although Prabhakaran, Soosai and Pottu Amman taking refuge among civilians knew what was going on they couldn’t intervene. For those trapped in Anandapuram, there was absolutely no help from outside. The LTTE was unable to launch an operation to open a safe passage for those trapped in Anandapuram to escape. By the following morning (April 4, 2009), the 58 and 53 Divisions recovered a large number of bodies. But fierce fighting continued till midnight April 5, 2009 until the two formations supported by the elite Special Forces wiped out the entire enemy force. Tigers went down fighting.
The army directed artillery fire at the trapped enemy. The artillery fire had to be directed cautiously due to presence of own forces at close proximity to the enemy. It was a difficult task. During the battle, the army intercepted LTTE veteran Vidusha calling Pottu Amman asking for reinforcements. Pottu declined suggesting that they had to break free on their own. In fact, Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Soosai had left Anandapuram shortly before the army completed the encirclement. Had they, too, been trapped in that village the eelam war IV would have ended in the first week of April 2009.
Over 600 LTTE cadres, including some of their experienced battlefield commanders perished in the battle. The 58 Division recovered over 500 bodies, whereas the 53 Division found over 150. The dead LTTE leaders included Gadafi, Durga, Kapila Amman, Vidusha, Nagesh, Theepan, Maniwannan master, Keerthi and Panjan.
The 58.2 Brigade troops recovered a large number of weapons, including three 130 mm artillery pieces and 12 GR made an important recovery when they got hold of the 85 mm gun captured from the Army at Pulukunawa in Dec. 1996.
The 58 Division also recovered ZPU-4 mobile anti-aircraft weapon. It was the first recovery of a ZPU-4 a specialized anti-aircraft weapon belonging to the LTTE.
In early 2009, Brig. Shavendra Silva had about 22 battalions under his command, though an infantry Division comprised three Brigades each consisting of three battalions. The debilitating defeat he suffered at Anandapuram dashed Prabhakaran’s hopes of holding onto the shrinking territory on the Mullaitivu coast at the expense of civilians until a lifeline was thrown.
The annihilation of the LTTE force sent shock waves through those still battling the army in the Mullaitivu District—Tiger force annihilated near Mullaitivu civilian zone-The Island April 6, 2009). Hearing the Anandapuram debacle, many civilians fled the LTTE-held area to seek refuge in areas controlled by the army. The 58.3 Brigade tasked with controlling IDP transit camps. The army established five IDP transit camps along the Paranthan-Mullaitivu A- 35 road and by April 3, 2009, they facilitated the arrival of over 70,000 civilians to the army-held area.
Gotabhaya vows to finish off Tigers
While the Anandapuram battle was raging, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa declared that it was now too late for the LTTE to negotiate a deal with the government. He ruled out the possibility of allowing those engaged in previous attempts to broker a deal between the government and the LTTE to do so again. The Defence Secretary was responding to media reports pertaining to a discussion between LTTE Political Wing leader B Nadesan and one-time Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim—No lifeline for LTTE, assures government-The Island April 5, 2009).
UN in desperate attempt to save Tigers
The UNSG Ban Ki moon went to the extent of sending his Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar and Hitoki Den of the UN Department for Political Affairs to work out a deal with President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The meeting took place in the wake of Prabhakaran losing over 600 cadres at Anandapuram in the single worst debacle suffered by the LTTE during the entire conflict. The dead included Black Tigers and members of elite units.
The government rejected the UN call for an immediate ceasefire on the Vanni east front to facilitate a meeting between UN representatives and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in the civilian safety zone on the Mullaitivu coast. The request was made at the behest of the then US Ambassador in Colombo Robert O. Blake.
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa on April 16 evening told Vijay Nambiar and Hitoki Den of the UN Department for Political Affairs that a fresh lifeline wouldn’t be given to the LTTE.
The following day Nambiar had a one-on-one meeting with President Rajapaksa over breakfast at Temple Trees, where the President reiterated the position taken up by his brother.
It was followed by a luncheon meeting attended by the then Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, Nambiar and the Colombo based envoys of the US, India, EU, UNDP and ICRC. But Norway and Japan, both co-chairs of the group set up after the 2003 Tokyo conference weren’t present.
The Rajapaksas emphasized that a fresh ceasefire would only strengthen the LTTE, thereby prolong the misery of the civilians trapped in the war zone.
Nambiar was told that a visit by UN representatives to the LTTE leadership wouldn’t be in Sri Lanka’s interest.
The UN Secretary General on March 3, 2006, announced the appointment of Nambiar as his Special Adviser with the rank of Under-Secretary-General. At the time he received the appointment, the veteran Indian Foreign Service officer served as Deputy National Security Advisor to the Government of India and Head of the National Security Council Secretariat.
Government took up the position that there was absolutely no need for a UN role as the LTTE could use the ICRC if it wanted to send a message to the government. The ICRC with staff based in the civilian safety zone continued to evacuate the sick and wounded by ship in keeping with a tripartite agreement involving the government, ICRC and the LTTE, the government pointed out.
The government assured that every effort would be made to protect civilians trapped in the war zone.
US threatens to block IMF loan
Angered by Sri Lanka’s refusal to facilitate a meeting between the UN and the LTTE in Mullaitivu, the US warned President Rajapaksa to comply or face the consequences. The government was told that it wouldn’t be allowed to receive US $ 1.9 mn loan facility unless it immediately declared a ceasefire, suspend the offensive and pave the way for international intervention. The President and the Defence Secretary didn’t succumb to international pressure (In a bid to bail out terrorists—Now US threatens to block IMF loan facility-The Island April 20).
In the third week of April, the LTTE dominated about 18 sq. km. area. Prabhakaran had no option but to surrender unconditionally to advancing troops. He could have surrendered to either 58 Division or the 53 Division.
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa declared in the last week of April 2009 that the LTTE couldn’t be party to any future political dialogue with the government. President Rajapaksa wouldn’t accept Prabhakaran as a party to any future settlement, the Defence Secretary said. The outspoken official was responding to a query by The Island in the wake of the US State Department on April 26, 2009 on behalf of the Tokyo Co Chairs to the Norwegian-led peace initiative reiterating call for an immediate ceasefire. The US proposed that the LTTE hand over its weapons to a third party, whereas President Rajapaksa was asked to offer a general amnesty to the vast majority of LTTE cadres to pave the way for a political dialogue. The US statement coincided with a unilateral declaration of a ceasefire declared by the LTTE, which was immediately rejected by the Defence Secretary (Lanka rules out talks with defeated Tigers-The Island April 28, 2009).
The Defence Secretary told this writer that the LTTE had been restricted to an area consisting of approximately 10 sq. km and was no longer in a position to conduct offensive or defensive operations. Dismissing Prabhakaran’s ceasefire offer as a joke, the Defence Secretary insisted that the government couldn’t allow a third party to move in at the final phase of offensive under any circumstances. He reiterated that there was no other way than a total and unconditional surrender to the army.